Why money could be the reason some violent juvenile offenders in Cuyahoga County are getting off easy

Published: Aug. 31, 2023 at 6:46 PM EDT
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - Could money be the reason some violent juvenile offenders are getting off with just a slap on the wrist? 19 Investigates looked into a troubling trend that could be behind the spike in violent juvenile crime.

On July 25, 12 kids as young as 13-years-old were caught on camera viciously attacking a seemingly innocent man at a Cleveland gas station.

“When I watched the tape, I was sick for the individual who was so brutally beaten for no apparent reason,” said Cuyahoga County Prosecutor, Michael O’Malley. “It was appalling but it was a clear demonstration of the challenges we face as a community to get this violence under control.”

Many of us have done things as teenagers we’re not proud of, but most of us never stole a car, robbed someone at gunpoint, or shot a police officer. It might be hard to believe but these crimes are becoming more and more routine in Cleveland and the number of teens committing them is skyrocketing.

In 2022, 87% more kids were charged with shooting crimes in Cleveland than they were in 2021.

“We’re making arrests of 12-year-old kids and 13-year-old kids and 14-year-old kids,” said U.S. Marshal, Pete Elliot. “You know, it’s more common than it was to me five years ago, 10 years ago, 15 and 20 years ago.”

Elena Donofrio knows what it’s like to be carjacked by a teenager. She and three other women were carjacked in Cleveland’s Little Italy by 14-year-old Derrelle Travis. He even shot one of the victims twice in the stomach before stealing her car.

Donofrio said she’s no longer surprised when she hears about teens committing violent crimes.

“I mean I remember being a teenager and I never wanted to hurt anyone,” Donofrio said.

Believe it or not after all that and after pleading guilty, Travis was allowed to be on house arrest until his sentencing. Right before his sentencing, he cut off his ankle monitor and went on the run.

“Ankle bracelets are not supposed to be for violent criminals because this is what happens, and I believe the judge Cassandra Collier-Williams knew that and I think she should be held accountable,” said Donofrio.

19 Investigates reached out to Judge Collier-Williams about her decision. We were told because Travis’ case is currently in the appeals process, she is not allowed to comment.

Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley called his escape “completely avoidable.”

“To let him out for that month, and to have him go out on the run, and then to require law enforcement and the US marshals to begin having to search for him throughout our region,” said O’Malley. “It wouldn’t have been my decision to let him out.”

U.S. Marshal Pete Elliot and his task force caught Travis 10 days later. “I’m not so sure in the minds of, you know, the 14-year-olds, and 15-year-olds if they’re certain of punishment,” Elliot said.

Tamara McLoyd is an example of a teen whose criminal behavior started early and escalated. She committed her first crime at just 14 years old, assault.

Five years later she was found guilty of murdering off-duty Cleveland police officer Shane Bartek. She was out on probation at the time for robbing a Lorain man she met on a dating website.

19 Investigates went to ask Lorain County Judge Frank Janik why the teen wasn’t given a harsher sentence. He wasn’t there. We tried calling him multiple times, but he never called back.

Prosecutor O’Malley thinks this all comes down to cash.

“She was turned loose on the streets because if the judge in Lorain County sentenced her to the Ohio Department of Youth Services on an ag robbery, even with a gun, they would have lost money,” O’Malley said.

Job Lesko and Danica Jankovich believe the judicial system is letting juvenile offenders off too easily. Their son and his girlfriend, 22-year-old Bobby Henry and 32-year-old Brianca Palmer were killed by a pair of drag racing teenagers.

The teens were racing through Cleveland’s Slavic Village when they crashed into the couple on their motorcycle

“Why these juveniles have a license to kill is beyond us,” said Lesko.

“They should have at least done two years in jail, adult jail,” said Jankovich. “They should’ve probably lost their license for the rest of their lives.”

The 16-year-old girl involved was placed on house arrest. Juvenile court records show she cut off her ankle monitor and went on the run.

“She evaded capture and wasted police resources,” Lesko said.

The teens took a plea deal. Juvenile Court Judge Jennifer O’Malley sentenced them to time in a group home and suspended driver’s licenses until they turn 21.

Prosecutor O’Malley said his office asked for the pair to be bound over, but the motion was denied.

19 Investigates asked Judge Jennifer O’Malley for a statement on that case but was told she was not allowed to make a public statement on a pending case.

“I feel like it’s part of why juveniles feel like they have the courage to go do these kinds of things because they think oh, I’ll be able to get out,” Donofrio said.

The number of juveniles charged with homicide increased by nearly 60 percent from 2021 to 2022.

The number of juveniles charged with firing a gun into a home doubled.

The increase in juvenile crime comes as Cleveland struggles to hire police. CPD is down 267 officers.

19 Investigates asked Cleveland Police Chief Wayne Drummond if he thinks the shortage of officers is contributing to the increase in crime.

“You’ll talk to some people, and they’ll say yes, it’s a direct correlation,” Chief Drummond said. “Of course, I would like to have a full staff because that gives me the ability to do a lot more, but I just can’t say looking at you right now because we have less officers, that’s the reason why crime is rising, it’s a variety of reasons.”

O’Malley believes Ohio’s RECLAIM program is one of them. It distributes $30,000,000 every year to Ohio’s juvenile courts.

The program offers judges a financial incentive for sending juveniles to community-based programs instead of prison.

The program started in 1995, but in 2010 the state launched targeted RECLAIM funding, that funding goes to the counties with the highest number of juvenile justice admissions, which includes Cuyahoga. To get the additional funding, they had to drastically reduce their admissions.

In 2009 Cuyahoga County sent 293 kids to prison, by 2021 it was just 76.

“I have a difficult time understanding why the state of Ohio brings a financial equation into sentencing anyone and if there was a financial consideration in sentencing adults, I think there would be a public outcry as to how inappropriate that is,” said Prosecutor O’Malley.

While there are exceptions for kids who commit crimes like murder and rape, armed robbery and shootings aren’t included. O’Malley believes that needs to change.

“There is a financial benefit to not send kids to ODYS and I think that equation needs to be eliminated and judges should look towards what’s best for the victim and what’s best for the community’s safety,” O’Malley said. “When you keep letting kids out who are committing violent offenses, you’re inevitably giving them the keys to a long prison sentence.”

So, what it would take to change this program? O’Malley believes the legislature would have to get involved. 19 Investigates will be heading to Columbus in the coming weeks to find out.