A nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system
The Marshall Project is answering questions from the community about Cuyahoga County’s criminal courts, and sharing what we have gathered from the public docket of felony cases and through our reporting.
This type of transparency alone can’t change the harms experienced by people in the system. We hope it will spark conversation and deeper understanding of how the court operates.
We’ll be adding more information, so check back or sign up for an alert when we answer more questions. Have a question you’d like us to tackle? Ask us. If we can answer it, we will.
We do not include the personal information of people who faced charges. To look up a specific case, use the clerk of the court’s website. Check out our download page to get some of the raw data we used to answer the questions below.
Number of cases by year
What is included?
A Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court case can include one or more felony charges, against one or more defendants. Our tally of new felony case filings per year counts each case once per defendant. The number of cases filed in 2020 dropped due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cases from prior to 2016 that are ongoing, reactivated or transferred are not counted.
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We have 69,056 felony cases in the data filed between 2016 and 2021 in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas.
Cases are filed when the county prosecutor believes a person committed a crime that is a felony in Ohio. The filing follows an arrest or a criminal investigation by law enforcement. In most cases, a grand jury of residents determines whether a case is indicted, which means it will be assigned to a judge. If the grand jury does not issue an indictment, the case is closed and referred to as a “no bill.”
We count filings using the case number that is assigned when prosecutors tell the court they are pursuing criminal charges. Each case number is associated with one or more felony charges against a single defendant.
Cases can be dismissed, diverted to a community program or they can result in a guilty plea or a verdict of guilt or innocence for each charge.
Our data does not always include cases that were sealed or expunged by the court.
Number of defendants by race
The Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court lists three categories related to race: Black, White and Asian. It also includes Hispanic, which is an ethnicity. When indictments are filed against “John Does” or “Unknown Males” for felony crimes that are based on DNA or other evidence — like sexual assaults — the race category is sometimes left blank. We designated those, and other cases where no race was listed, as “Unknown.”
Court officials said information related to a defendant’s race comes from the law enforcement agency that makes the arrest or files the charges.
Arrests and investigations by agency, 2016-2021
Cleveland Police arrests and investigations made up the largest share — 46 % — of cases in the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court from 2016 through 2021. The Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s office, which operates the county jail and has jurisdiction countywide, had the next highest number of cases.
Several state agencies make arrests that result in criminal cases. Ohio State Highway Patrol cases primarily stem from traffic stops, including gun and drug charges. State of Ohio cases include “escape” charges for people who are accused of violating conditions of parole supervision, like missing a check-in meeting or having a positive drug screen.
The size of a city or a police agency doesn’t necessarily match up with the number of criminal cases filed with the court. For instance, the East Cleveland Police Department, which patrols a town of about 14,000 residents and has about 40 sworn officers, contributed more cases than larger departments from cities with more residents — like Lakewood, which has 50,000 residents and 90 officers.
A full list of arresting agencies is available on our data release page.
Defendants who enter a plea of guilty to a criminal charge in a case have the right to make a request to withdraw that plea. A Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court judge can grant or deny the request. Defendants have made motions, in writing or verbally in the courtroom, and the court has ruled on them about 400 times, or in less than 1% of cases, from 2016 through 2021. Judges denied the requests a little more than 60% of the time and granted the withdrawal of the guilty plea a little less than 40% of the time.
Number of defendants by sex
Nearly 80% of the defendants with cases filed in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court from 2016 through 2021 had their sex recorded as male.
The court tracks the sex of a defendant using three categories: male, female and not specified. The information on the court’s docket is collected by the law enforcement agency that arrested or charged the person. Court officials say they track demographic data using these categories to match the information in state and federal law enforcement identification databases.
Sex and gender identity are not consistent in this data. In some cases, a person’s sex may be listed in a law enforcement database as male, but they may identify as a trans woman. In other cases, where a person has legally changed the gender listed on their state identification, that information will be reflected in the court’s data.
Court officials said that regardless of the information on the docket, when a person appears in court, efforts are made to respect their gender identity.
Age ranges of case defendants
Felony cases filed in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas from 2016 through 2021 were most often against people who were between the ages of 25 and 34 years old at time the court case started. This includes people who had multiple cases filed against them in those years.
Age buckets by race
Broken down by race, there were almost 5 times the number of cases filed against Black residents between the ages of 14 and 24 than against White residents of the same age range. Cases where race was listed as other or unknown are excluded from the charts above.
Children by race
Felony cases filed against children under 18 were less than 1% of all Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court criminal cases from 2016 through 2021. More than 10 times the number of cases were filed against Black minors than against White ones in the past seven years.
The more than 420 cases filed in the adult court against minors aged 14 through 17 are mostly bindovers, a process where a case is transferred from the juvenile court to the adult court. The process occurs either because it is mandatory under Ohio law or because a juvenile judge orders a discretionary transfer of the case.
Eligibility for bindover is based on the age a child was at the time a crime was reported, but the transfer process can take time. That means the child may be older when the case is filed in the adult court, which is what is counted here. For instance, one child was charged with robbery in 2020 when they were 14. By the time the case was transferred to adult court 9 months later, they had turned 15.
Once a child under 18 is convicted in an adult court case, any new felony cases are filed against them as if they were adults.
Arrests and investigations by private or non-municipal agencies from 2016 through 2021 (10 cases or more)
Police agencies that patrol hospitals, universities, buses and trains, housing authority property and casinos filed more than 4,500 felony cases in Cuyahoga County from 2016 through 2021. That’s around 6.5% of all of the cases filed during that time. About half of those cases stemmed from Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) arrests or investigations.
These smaller, sometimes private, agencies have sworn officers with the power to make arrests and seek prosecution for felony and misdemeanor crimes as long as they are certified by the state and have permission from the local jurisdiction where they operate. More than a dozen police agencies — other than the Cleveland police and county sheriff’s office — patrol within Cleveland’s borders.
Of the 128 people on death row in Ohio, 23 were convicted in Cuyahoga County, or about 18% of all people facing execution in the state. Cuyahoga is the second most populous county in the state – representing about 10% of the state’s population – but ranks first in Ohio in sentencing people to death.
Cuyahoga County was among the top five counties in the country for new death sentences between 2017 and 2021. It was tied with Los Angeles County, California for third place — both counties having handed down five new death sentences, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Los Angeles County has a population of a little over 10 million people, while Cuyahoga County has about 1.2 million.
While Ohio continues to sentence people to death row, the state has not carried out an execution in almost five years. Gov. Mike DeWine has repeatedly rescheduled the upcoming executions, citing the state's inability to attain the necessary lethal drugs.
The last person to be executed from Cuyahoga County was Gary Otte, 45, who was put to death in 2017. He was convicted of killing two people during robberies in 1992 in Parma.
Cases by county (2021)
Cuyahoga County has the most Common Pleas judges in Ohio, with 34 in the court’s general division. The judges preside over felony criminal cases and civil cases. Thirteen additional judges hear Juvenile Division, Domestic Relations and Probate court cases.
The Court of Common Pleas is the only trial court established by the Ohio Constitution. Based on the constitution, Common Pleas Courts may have more than one judge, depending on the caseload in the county. Only the Ohio Legislature can increase or decrease the number of judges assigned to a county’s Court of Common Pleas.
Judges who preside over felony cases are elected to six-year terms. If there is a vacancy between election years, the governor appoints a judge to fill the term.
Cuyahoga County has often asked state lawmakers to increase the number of judgeships in order to manage caseloads.
Beginning in 1896, when the court had just 6 judges, additions were requested every few years, each time citing a backlog of cases The most recent addition was in 1987, when two judges were added, bringing the total to the current number of 34.
Cuyahoga County isn’t Ohio’s largest county based on landmass or population, but it does tend to have a higher total number of felony-level criminal cases filed than other large counties in Ohio.
Franklin County is larger and has 18 judges in its general division. The next largest are Hamilton County and Lucas County, which have 16 and 10 felony judges in their general divisions, respectively.
These courts handle civil cases in addition to criminal filings.
Diversion is an umbrella term referring to programs that offer alternatives to incarceration — like “exit ramps” on a highway.
The four programs in felony courts are:
Each of the four diversion programs offered within the court system is unique. Prosecutors get to pick who qualifies for some of the programs. Defendants get to decide if they want to participate. Some programs require defendants plead guilty before starting a year-long program. If successful, their case will be sealed and expunged. Defendants in other programs are sentenced before entering diversion. These cases are reopened and dismissed if the program is successfully completed.
The Cuyahoga County felony courts have offered some form of diversion for decades. In theory, they exist to give people another chance, sparing some defendants a felony conviction and the collateral damages of incarceration such as family separation or job loss. Keeping people from behind bars has practical benefits for the county too — as jail conditions worsen and the county pours more money into covering staff hiring and overtime, overcrowding grows.
The courts heard about 3,000 low-level and non-violent felony cases per year that would qualify for diversion between 2016 and 2021. But answering simple questions about diversion is difficult for a number of reasons.
The court’s annual report shows how many of the 3,000 defendants enter each diversion program. But it does not include demographic information or completion rates. And when cases are dismissed or expunged, they are impossible to track in court data — the records disappear. So, even after several calls to the public defender’s office, prosecutor’s office and probation department — we still don’t know whether a record of successful diversion completions and expungements exists. And we still don’t know how many people qualify for diversion, but don’t enter into a program, and why.
Pretrial Diversion is one of Cuyahoga County’s four court diversion programs.
Who qualifies for Pretrial Diversion? Technically anyone who has been charged with a non-violent, non-drug related felony in Cuyahoga County may qualify if they have no previous felony convictions and no more than three misdemeanor or juvenile delinquencies within the past three years. In addition, defendants can’t owe more than $7,500 in restitution for a previous conviction.
Who enters the program is up to the discretion of the county prosecutor. While the court runs its own diversion programs, state statute also gives prosecutors authority to establish pre-trial diversion programs. The five supervisors within the prosecutor’s office authorize diversion cases from different area of the county.
Of the roughly 1,800 low-level and non-violent felony cases in 2021 fewer than a quarter of the cases went into Pretrial Diversion, according to Brendan Sheehan, the court’s administrative and presiding judge.
Entering this program comes with some conditions. For starters, defendants must sign a statement admitting guilt and waving their right to a trial. After there's an agreement, the case is essentially paused for six months to a year while the person works to meet the program requirements which include: paying restitution, court costs, and fines and fees. People may be required to meet with a diversion officer, participate in community service, and receive treatment for substance use or mental health problems. It’s similar to being on probation.
Falling short on any of these requirements could mean a return to court. Because defendants sign a plea agreement, admitting guilt, they do not have an opportunity to present evidence at a trial or renegotiate their plea. Instead, they are sentenced by a judge, and could face time either on probation or behind bars.
Because the records of successful defendants are expunged, we can’t track how many people successfully complete the program in Cuyahoga County’s court records. The court doesn’t include that information in its annual reports to the public, and a court spokesperson did not respond when asked whether that record is kept internally.
Reported and written by Ilica Mahajan, Rachel Dissell, Anna Flagg, Alexandra Arriaga, Carla Canning and Liset Cruz
Edited by David Eads and Nicole Lewis
Design by Elan Kiderman Ullendorff and Katie Park
Development by Katie Park and Andrew Rodriguez Calderón