Cuyahoga County Prosecutor-elect Mike O’Malley addressed a crowd of more than 1,500 people Thursday night, pledging to enact several significant criminal justice reforms. Among them was the Civil Rights Unit.
The Civil Rights Unit would be the first of its kind in Cuyahoga County promising to get civil rights cases tried in federal court. “We can’t have people who are discriminated against because of their race, national origin, sexual orientation, religious views,” O’Malley said.
He also pledged to abide by the commitments of his campaign related to police use of deadly force cases. He said, while campaigning, that he’d recommend independent investigation and prosecution for all such cases, and he reaffirmed that commitment Thursday. He pledged to reduce overcharging low-level nonviolent offenses at a rate of 7-15 percent per year. “We cannot incarcerate, penalize and institutionalize people because of drug behavior,” O’Malley said, to applause.
O’Malley recently ousted embattled prosecutor Tim McGinty, who’s lack of action in several high profile cases in Cleveland left the city divided. Cleveland Scene Magazine recently did an extensive interview with O’Malley. Here are some of the questions and responses from that interview. You can read the entire interview here.
Did you hear from groups as you’ve talked to them that communication or access to dialogs with the current prosecutor was lacking?
I don’t want to armchair quarterback — you can sit around and think about what Prosecutor McGinty did wrong, and different people have different viewpoints — but I would say that when I was out in the community, my personal viewpoint is that he wasn’t out there enough building confidence in his leadership and decision making.
I know there were certain groups in the county that had called him looking for meetings, and he did not set up those meetings. People who just wanted to be heard. One of his weaknesses was that he wasn’t available to them.
How do you continue that line of communication and assure different parts of our county that this is something that’s important to you once you take office?
Certainly just getting out there. When I was in office before as Region 2 Supervisor, I was at the monthly second district commanders’ meeting. I think it’s important for the prosecutor to hit those meetings, maybe not every month — there are a ton of meetings — but making the rounds and being available and having speaking engagements across the county. The foremost job of the prosecutor is to seek justice, but I think that part of that is building confidence. And not just in Cuyahoga County, but around the country. People have questions about how the criminal justice system handles cases and whether it fairly and impartially represents all people. Part of my task in this era is to get out there and restore that confidence.
We’ll get to Tamir Rice and certain other cases in a second. That has to do with that confidence, or lack thereof, in the office. And those are monumental cases, but they represent a small fraction of the cases that the Prosecutor’s Office handles. What other concerns in the application of fair justice have you heard since your campaign started and after your primary victory?
For instance, I’ve heard from community groups concerned about the handling of drug cases. They feel that low-level drug cases are unfairly impacting abilities of individuals both white and black to secure future employment that would allow them to become productive members of society. They think there’s been too much emphasis on convicting the individual for low-level drug offenses instead of rehabilitation and recovery and attempting to get them back into society without the stigma of a felony on their records that might prevent future employment.
What options are at your disposal to address that?
It’s how we handle them. When I was in the Prosecutor’s Office previously, Cleveland used to send crackpipe cases to the Prosecutor’s Office. Then Mayor Jackson made a decision working with his team that they weren’t going to send crackpipe cases back to the county Prosecutor’s Office. So that decision was made, an individual who was caught for the first or second time with a crackpipe wouldn’t get sent downtown for a felony. I would like to assist community groups and local police agencies in putting an emphasis on assisting people into recovery. I’d like to expand the opportunities for drug court, for example.
While Mr. O’Malley may have good intentions, these attempts at reform are only reinforcing the idea of the legitimacy of state power. Unfortunately, the world we currently live in requires it. So time will tell if this reform is any good or just more lip service to the disenfranchised residents of Cuyahgoa County.