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Cleveland Courts’ Revolving Door in One Chart

A portrait of Cuyahoga County’s repeat defendants.

Defendants with multiple cases make up the bulk of cases heard by Cleveland’s criminal courts. Over two-thirds of the about 70,000 criminal court cases from 2016 to 2021 involved a defendant with at least one prior case.

Many of these defendants are not hardened, violent criminals and most are not committing serious violent crimes that would result in lengthy sentences. Our investigation found that most of the crimes are linked to untreated drug addiction or mental illness.

Who’s really cycling in and out of the Cuyahoga County courts?

MaleBlackFrom the city>40 years oldCharged withdrug possessionGuilty verdict fora violent chargeFirst case at ageyounger than 21102030405060708090%
People from Cuyahoga county People with fewer than 5 cases People with 5 or more cases
MaleBlackFrom thecity>40 yearsoldChargedwith drugpossessionGuiltyverdict fora violentchargeFirst caseat ageyoungerthan 21102030405060708090%
People from Cuyahoga county People with fewer than 5 cases People with 5 or more cases
MaleBlackFrom the city>40 years oldCharged withdrug possessionGuilty verdict fora violent chargeFirst case at ageyounger than 21102030405060708090%
People from Cuyahoga county People with fewer than 5 cases People with 5 or more cases
MaleBlackFrom thecity>40 yearsoldChargedwith drugpossessionGuiltyverdict fora violentchargeFirst caseat ageyoungerthan 21102030405060708090%
People from Cuyahoga county People with fewer than 5 cases People with 5 or more cases
MaleBlackFrom the city>40 years oldCharged withdrug possessionGuilty verdict fora violent chargeFirst case at ageyounger than 21102030405060708090%
People from Cuyahoga county People with fewer than 5 cases People with 5 or more cases
MaleBlackFrom thecity>40 yearsoldChargedwith drugpossessionGuiltyverdict fora violentchargeFirst caseat ageyoungerthan 21102030405060708090%
People from Cuyahoga county People with fewer than 5 cases People with 5 or more cases
MaleBlackFrom the city>40 years oldCharged withdrug possessionGuilty verdict fora violent chargeFirst case at ageyounger than 21102030405060708090%
People from Cuyahoga county People with fewer than 5 cases People with 5 or more cases
MaleBlackFrom thecity>40 yearsoldChargedwith drugpossessionGuiltyverdict fora violentchargeFirst caseat ageyoungerthan 21102030405060708090%
People from Cuyahoga county People with fewer than 5 cases People with 5 or more cases
MaleBlackFrom the city>40 years oldCharged withdrug possessionGuilty verdict fora violent chargeFirst case at ageyounger than 21102030405060708090%
People from Cuyahoga county People with fewer than 5 cases People with 5 or more cases
MaleBlackFrom thecity>40 yearsoldChargedwith drugpossessionGuiltyverdict fora violentchargeFirst caseat ageyoungerthan 21102030405060708090%
People from Cuyahoga county People with fewer than 5 cases People with 5 or more cases
MaleBlackFrom the city>40 years oldCharged withdrug possessionGuilty verdict fora violent chargeFirst case at ageyounger than 21102030405060708090%
People from Cuyahoga county People with fewer than 5 cases People with 5 or more cases
MaleBlackFrom thecity>40 yearsoldChargedwith drugpossessionGuiltyverdict fora violentchargeFirst caseat ageyoungerthan 21102030405060708090%
People from Cuyahoga county People with fewer than 5 cases People with 5 or more cases
MaleBlackFrom the city>40 years oldCharged withdrug possessionGuilty verdict fora violent chargeFirst case at ageyounger than 21102030405060708090%
People from Cuyahoga county People with fewer than 5 cases People with 5 or more cases
MaleBlackFrom thecity>40 yearsoldChargedwith drugpossessionGuiltyverdict fora violentchargeFirst caseat ageyoungerthan 21102030405060708090%
People from Cuyahoga county People with fewer than 5 cases People with 5 or more cases
MaleBlackFrom the city>40 years oldCharged withdrug possessionGuilty verdict fora violent chargeFirst case at ageyounger than 21102030405060708090%
People from Cuyahoga county People with fewer than 5 cases People with 5 or more cases
MaleBlackFrom thecity>40 yearsoldChargedwith drugpossessionGuiltyverdict fora violentchargeFirst caseat ageyoungerthan 21102030405060708090%
People from Cuyahoga county People with fewer than 5 cases People with 5 or more cases

One of the most striking differences is that people with 5 or more cases are overwhelmingly male.

About half of people from Cuyahoga County are male, compared with over 90% of people repeatedly cycling through the courts.

Black people make up less than a third of all people from Cuyahoga County, while our reporting shows that about three-quarters of the people who were convicted in Cuyahoga County and are in state prisons are Black.

This effect is further magnified for repeat defendants. Black people make up a little over 60% of people with fewer than 5 cases, and nearly 80% of people with 5 or more cases.

As home to the county’s largest Black population, it’s no surprise that Cleveland proper is also over-represented. About one-third of people from Cuyahoga County live in the city, while about two-thirds of people with 5 or more cases listed an address in the city.

Amassing a criminal record takes years as people cycle in and out of the courts, diversion programs, and stints of incarceration. Over half of people with 5 or more cases are 40 years old or older, while only about a quarter of people with fewer than 5 cases are older than 40.

Non-violent drug possession is the most common charge for which defendants are convicted. About 1 in 7 people with fewer than 5 cases had a guilty verdict for drug possession, which rose to about 1 in 4 for people with 5 or more cases.

Most of the repeat defendant cases reviewed by The Marshall Project included someone who cited drug addiction, mental illness, or both as a factor in their crimes.

The majority of defendants passing through the doors of Cuyahoga’s Justice Center are never convicted of a violent crime.

When they are, people with 5 or more cases are not convicted of a violent charge at a substantially higher rate than people with fewer than 5 cases.

In other words, even if a defendant is charged in multiple cases, their crimes are not increasingly more violent. While there is a fresh wave of concern among many Americans about public safety, the most common violent guilty charge is domestic violence, not crimes like carjacking or mugging.

People who are frequently in court tend to be quite young when they face their first case. The majority of people with 5 or more cases were younger than 21 when they were first charged with crimes. This is in contrast to people with fewer than 5 cases, who are generally a little older when they first interact with the court system.

More from Testify

Go deeper with Wesley Lowery and Ilica Mahajan’s in-depth look at repeat defendants. Can a new “high-risk” court provide services to addicted defendants with lengthy criminal records?

And we want you to ask us your questions about Cleveland's court system.

Ilica Mahajan Twitter Email is a computational journalist at The Marshall Project. She builds tools and analyzes data to uncover the complexities of the criminal justice system.

David Eads Twitter Email is The Marshall Project's data editor. He has been covering criminal justice issues since co-founding The Invisible Institute in the early 2000s. He was a member of the team of independent journalists who won the 2019 Premio Gabo for reporting on mass graves in Mexico.