To Relieve Ohio’s Overcrowded Jails, Rethink Who Goes in Them

On a recent afternoon at the city hall in Toledo, Ohio, Holly Matthews is teaching her colleagues some slang. “I forgot to tell everyone my new word of the day,” she says. “It’s ‘pookie.’” A pookie, Matthews explains, is another word for a crack pipe. “I checked with Urban Dictionary,” she says, chuckling.
Matthews is executive director of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, an agency that provides criminal justice information services to residents of Lucas County in Northwest Ohio. She is also one of a dozen members of the county’s Population Review Team, an interagency group that seeks ways of reducing or eliminating jail time for new or low-level offenders, with the goal of reducing incarceration rates in Lucas County’s overburdened jails. (Matthews’ “pookie” was in a case file she was reviewing, found by police in the pocket of a man who was arrested after a domestic dispute.)
The atmosphere in the room can be lighthearted, but the Population Review Team’s work is serious business — especially in Toledo, Lucas’ county seat, where reducing incarceration rates is sorely needed. The county’s jail is designed to hold only pretrial inmates, but it is being overburdened by too many people waiting to see a judge. In 2014, a U.S. Federal judge ordered the county to cap its jail population, which had a capacity of 346 beds. Two years after the cap was set, the jail’s population has been reduced to 667 people — down from 845 in 2016 — for the first quarter this year, according to Matthews.
To try and address these issues of overcrowding, the Population Review Team meets once a week to review the county’s jail cases to find ways to reduce bail, alter criminal offenses and, in some cases, eliminate or reduce jail time completely.
Toledo isn’t alone in dealing with overcrowded jails.
Nationally, jail populations have been steadily rising, contributing to high incarceration rates throughout the country. Daily local jail populations swelled from 157,000 in 1970 to over 700,000 people in 2015. Annually, there are close to 11 million admissions into jails, according to data collected by the Vera Institute of Justice.
“It’s become a crisis because as we’ve added laws that impose mandatory sentencing,” says Gene A. Zmuda, a common pleas court judge for Lucas County. “We are incarcerating more and more of our population.”

Ohio jail 2
Judge Gene A. Zmuda is working to keep Ohio’s jails from becoming overcrowded.

For those on the Population Review Team — along with Matthews, the group includes local correction officers and defense attorneys — this means reviewing rap sheets to determine if there are ways to release inmates without putting the public at risk, such as increased usage of electronic monitoring.  
In other cases, plea deals are brokered, according to Sean McNulty, chief public defender for the Toledo Legal Aid Society and an original member of the review team. Candidates who are deemed “good” — those with misdemeanor charges or nonviolent crimes — can have their bail modified or their case expedited or, in some cases, they are simply set free.
Zmuda invokes an example of a first-time drug user. “Maybe jail isn’t the right place for that person,” he says. “Send them to rehabilitation and break the cycle of addiction.”
The program started in 2016, after the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded the county a $2 million grant directing local mental-health organizations to partner with law enforcement officials, with the intent to “institute changes aimed at reducing local incarceration and disparities in jail usage in accordance with its implementation plan.
Over the course of an afternoon, the team isolates about a dozen defendants in custody whose charges will be reviewed. During a recent meeting, McNulty and John Madigan, the city’s prosecutor, were able to agree to several resolutions for a handful of people who were sitting in the county’s jail. The negotiations included a reduced charge, credit for time served and a probation term.
According to Matthews, this comprehensive collaboration and review reduced 1,800 jail days in total for 2017. And while the jail’s population isn’t as low as officials want it to be, they point to the reductions they’ve made in the past two years, by almost two hundred inmates in total.
“Jail buildup happened over 40 years and it won’t be solved in just a year or two,” says Patrick Griffin, the senior program officer for the MacArthur Foundation.
Along with the review board meetings, Lucas County officials have implemented four other strategies — such as training cops to identify alternatives to arrests or keeping people with mental health issues out of jail — to help in reducing the county’s jail population.
And as the initiative continues, Griffin hopes that solutions like the ones being implemented in Lucas County will spread to other parts of the state, and beyond.
“It will take success and then practitioners will take notice,” he says. “We have to increase demand among citizens for jail reform.”
Zmuda, McNulty and others believe that the next important step will be addressing the overrepresentation of minors in the system, along with keeping substance abusers from getting swept into the jail. 
“We’re holding fewer — and holding the right — people,” says Zmuda. “We have right-sized our jail.”

This Is Possibly America’s Most Immigrant-Friendly City, Using Burgers to Bring Police and Community Activists Together and More

How an Ohio Town Became a Model for Resettling Syrian Refugees, Vice
Many politicians don’t believe that the U.S. can properly screen refugees from the Middle East. Yet one city in Ohio is welcoming them with open arms. In Toledo, multiple organizations provide Syrian immigrants with much-needed assistance, helping them locate housing, receive English language lessons and more.
Diverse Wichitans Gather for Barbecue with Police, Wichita Eagle
Across the nation, Black Lives Matter protesters and police officers face off against each other in the streets. But in Wichita, Kan., these two groups came together over hamburgers and hot dogs to discuss the importance of community policing, how poverty and lack of education cause racial disparity and why racial bias still exists.
Meet the Dangling Goddess of Street Art at Ozy Fest, Ozy
Low-income students who receive a strong arts education are more successful at challenging coursework than kids whose schooling is light on the arts. Which is why street artist Alice Mizrachi is teaching urban youth how creative expression can fight poverty and racial inequality.
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Giving Mickey Mouse an Energy Boost Helps the Environment, How One Neighborhood Transformed Itself from the Country’s Worst and More

Want Power? Fire Up the Tomatoes and Potatoes, National Geographic
In Florida, scientists discovered that the tomato can be transformed from a lycopene storehouse into an electrical powerhouse. Considering that the annual surplus in South Florida could power Disney World for three months, is a new type of utility — one that’s fueled by food waste — in the state’s future?
How Cincinnati Salvaged the Nation’s Most Dangerous Neighborhood, Politico
Simply put, in 2009, Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood was the nation’s worst. When city government couldn’t provide a lifeline to the downtrodden area, a nonprofit private development company stepped in. Now, in just seven short years, the community is experiencing a blossoming transformation.
New California Law Could Keep Guns Away from People Like Omar Mateen, Reveal
After a mass shooting tragedy in 2014, the Golden State proved that it’s possible to pass sensible gun legislation. Its gun violence restraining order can prevent someone from purchasing or possessing a firearm for 21 days if law enforcement or a family member is worried they’ll turn violent.
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Why Youthful Indiscretions Shouldn’t Result in Jail Sentences, How to Save Babies Born with Opioid Addictions and More

A Prosecutor’s Vision For A Better Justice System, TED
Adam Foss, a prosecutor with the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office in Boston, recently asked a group of TED participants how many had ever drank underage, tried an illegal drug, shoplifted or gotten into a physical fight. While viewed by most as youthful indiscretions, these same offenses often land black and brown youth in criminal court, viewed as being dangerous to society. Which is why Foss is using prosecutorial discretion to dismiss minor cases that aren’t worthy of a criminal record.
Tiny Opioid Patients Need Help Easing Into Life, Kaiser Health News and NPR
In this country, addiction to heroin and prescription painkillers like hydrocodone, oxycodone or morphine continues to rise, even afflicting new moms. During pregnancy, these mothers must decide between getting clean and risking a miscarriage or delivering a baby that’s likely to experience drug withdrawal. With about 21,000 infants suffering from withdrawal each year, doctors in Rhode Island, nurses in Connecticut, researchers in Pennsylvania and public health officials in Ohio are all working on solutions to help these new families.

Website Seeks to Make Government Data Easier to Sift Through, New York Times
Just because the government releases endless pages of data to the public doesn’t mean it’s easy to turn those statistics into something that you can actually comprehend and use. DataUSA, an open source brainchild coming from the M.I.T. Media Lab, organizes and visualizes the information, presenting it in charts, graphs and written synopses. Thanks to this project, instead of just hearing a statistic of how many people in Flint, Mich., live in poverty, for example,  you can see it visually represented on a map.

This Is a Smart, Nonpartisan Way to Improve Local Government

What is the ideal size of government? Should decisions be centered in a strong federal branch or diffused across thousands of municipalities? Liberals and conservatives have duked it out over these questions ever since Patrick Henry demanded a Bill of Rights to protect individual liberty from a tyrannical president. But there’s a retro, nonpartisan answer that’s been tested recently to add to the expected pull between local, state and federal governments: a regional body. The model first arose in the late 1960s as cities confronted the rise of suburbs, and it’s making a comeback as dealing with a new era of climate change — flooding, regional transport and open space — becomes a top priority. NationSwell looked at how this system of metropolitan governance has changed two cities and could impact a third.

Metro Council, Portland, Ore.

Leave it to Portland, Ore.’s biggest city, to come up with a new way of doing government. The area features the nation’s first and only elected regional government, which coordinates planning across Portland plus 24 neighboring cities and three counties along the Columbia and Willamette Rivers. (Minnesota’s Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, have another notable Metro Council, but their board is state-appointed and has been criticized for a lack of accountability.) The core of greater Portland’s government is a Metro Council consisting of six nonpartisan representatives who direct more than 1,600 government employees: rangers for 17,000 acres of park land, economists, climate scientists, urban planners, mapmakers, garbage truck drivers and even animal keepers who staff the zoo. Among the challenges it’s dealt with? Everything from the boundaries of urban growth to retiring old elephants.

The body’s emergence dates back to more than half a century ago, when Portland residents first recognized the need to safeguard outlying forests and historic neighborhoods from population growth — in essence, preserving the attractions that were making the city a destination. At the same time, community members also wanted to see efficient government services, not the “wasteful, fragmented and uneven” delivery that Portlanders witnessed in 1960, according to a League of Women Voters mailer. After a regional vote, the body was officially set up in 1979. “Places in the west — and Portland’s a good example of this — were growing rapidly. This expansion tends to get people thinking regionally,” Kate Foster, an expert in regional governance, tells The Atlantic’s CityLab. Residents cared about “these gaps in service delivery at the regional scale, things like water, sewers, and roads. These are things that weren’t really thought of in the same way in the east.” That concern led to a new model, but today, “it’s oft cited, never copied,” Foster adds.

Unigov, Indianapolis

Indiana, as we’ve written before, has an intricate set of laws regulating the structure of local government that can lead to some incredible results, including one county’s precipitous drop in income inequality. Back in the 1960s, cheap, flat land at the midpoint between Chicago, Cincinnati and Louisville made Indianapolis a prime location for suburban sprawl. The result: 11 suburban towns popped up right outside the city’s downtown in Marion County. A state law passed in 1970 created Unigov, a unified structure that essentially consolidated most of the area’s municipalities under a city-county council with 25 seats. White flight in the postwar years led to a decaying urban core, but the new organization allowed tax dollars to flow regionally. (Nashville and Jacksonville took on similar unifications around the same time.) Some say that Unigov made Indianapolis “a city captured by its suburbs,” but others point to economic growth that resulted from cutting through the bureaucracy of 60 local governments, a population boom that rocketed it to the nation’s 12th largest city, increased clout on federal grant applications, streamlined services and created a revitalized downtown.

For all the positives, politics was never far from the decision to unify. Some insiders speculated Republicans had created Unigov to dilute the Democrats’ urban vote with conservatives in the suburbs (the GOP held power for 30 years). And to get the law passed, legislators settled on a big compromise: school, police and fire district borders stayed unchanged, allowing richer (and much whiter) suburbs to keep property tax dollars within their enclaves. “The spectre of racial integration … would have met instant death for the plan,” the head of the school board said at the time. That hasn’t changed much, but consolidation continues to have support, with the local police and county sheriffs joining forces in 2005 and the creation of a centralized fire department in 2007. 

A view of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River.

County Merger, Cleveland

After being a hot trend in the 1970s, the reorganization of local government had died down — until recently. On the shores of Lake Erie, Cuyahoga County residents are now debating how to merge the two cities, 19 villages and 38 townships around Cleveland. The change in thinking started slowly and has been discussed for more than a decade. Back in 2004, Cleveland watched Louisville merge with Jefferson County, Ky., as its own population packed up and left. It took notice and rewrote the county charter to switch from a three-member board to a more active 11-member council and a county executive.

But a full merger is still in the works. In 2012, engaged readers of the local paper, the Plain Dealer, sent in thousands of color-coded maps for how the county could be reorganized. If nothing’s done and things continue as they are, at least 10.5 percent of the region’s housing stock — about 174,900 homes — will sit vacant and abandoned. East Cleveland, a separate city, is looking at bankruptcy. Based on what the experts are predicting, Cleveland could be the next spot to try out a different system of government.

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These Beautiful Art Projects Saved One Rust Belt Community from Economic Ruin

Construction projects wreak havoc on everyone’s lives. Residents become sleep deprived when the jackhammers wake them each morning, and commuters stress about detours adding minutes to their daily travel. But local business owners may suffer the most harm, as merchants on Manhattan’s Upper East Side near the Second Avenue subway construction and West Los Angeles storeowners coping with the new light-rail extension cutting through town can attest. Noise and dust drives away customers and businesses lose millions as a result.
When a year-long, $5.5 million repaving project threatened Cleveland’s now-thriving Collinwood neighborhood near Lake Erie, one civic group came up with a solution. Northeast Shores, a community development corporation, asked 225 artists to beautify the half-mile under construction with 52 community art projects. Funded by a relatively modest $118,000 grant, the initiative helped keep all 33 participating merchants in business.
“It’s pretty typical in Cleveland that a streetscape project results in business loss,” Brian Friedman, executive director at Northeast Shores, tells the blog Springboard Exchange. “People decide not to come thanks to the orange barrels.”

Mac’s Lock Shop on Waterloo Road.

Ravaged by the decline of the city’s manufacturing industry and the onset of another recession, vacancies used to dominate Cleveland’s central thoroughfare, Waterloo Road, and more stores were boarded up than occupied. By 2013, however, a new generation of small businesses was reviving the neighborhood, but infrastructure improvements needed to catch up.
To create a distraction amidst the chaos, Northeast Shores drew inspiration from a similar arts project in Saint Paul, Minn. The development agency offered small monthly grants, made available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Storeowners instantly crowded outside their offices, clamoring to get in.
“We were a little distressed by the number of merchants who were literally waiting for us to open so they could shove paper at us seconds apart from each other, to make sure they could be included,” Friedman recalls. “We didn’t think it was a good community-building moment for us to have merchants sitting in front of our office at 5 o’clock in the morning, arguing with each other about who got there first.”
With a streamlined application process, projects soon got underway. Mac’s Lock Shop, for instance, helped sculptor Ali Lukacsy put up luggage locks stamped with individual messages (Locks of Love) on fences. Storefronts and open spaces filled with crafts.
Not only were beautiful surprises scattered throughout 10 city blocks, but the venture also helped to solidify lasting partnerships and sparked community involvement from artists who could’ve hunkered down in their studios until the streets were clean. Creative businesses — art galleries, performance spaces, fabric stores and design agencies — proliferated, and now, Waterloo Road is considered the city’s hotbed of arts and entertainment.
A detail of the Locks of Love installation.

That strong civic fabric will be vital as Cleveland shifts its image from Rust Belt holdover (derided as “The Mistake on the Lake”) to an attractive destination for Millennials (with a new nickname of “The Comeback City”). “I want Waterloo to be a mini Austin or Nashville,” Cindy Barber, co-owner of Beachland Ballroom, a longstanding live music venue on Waterloo Road, tells the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. “We have to dream big to expand what we’ve been doing here to get people to Waterloo.”
The artwork gets visitors to stop and look. From there, closing the deal should be the easy part.

Ohio’s Redistricting Plan Makes Fair Elections Possible

Each time redistricting voter districts enters the national dialogue, along with it comes partisan politics and gerrymandering. But Ohio is taking steps to quell the dissent and find a more balanced and lasting way to map out voting districts.
Recently, the Ohio House gave final approval to a plan to draw voter maps using a bipartisan process with the goal of making elections more competitive.
Legislatures draw voting maps in 37 states, while 13 states use commissions — with some independent and others politically appointed — to define districts that are meant to be less partisan. In Ohio, the Apportionment Board is made up of three elected state officials including the governor, auditor and the secretary of state, as well as one member from each party chosen by the legislatures, according to the New York Times.
But the new proposal adds an additional member from each party, and if the minority party members don’t agree with the map, the revisions will only last four years instead of 10. With statewide elections every four years, partisan control could shift, which means it would make more sense to come up with a compromise that the minority party approves of as well.
The new plan is focused on state legislative districts but may have an effect on congressional districts since they are drawn by state lawmakers.
There’s no guarantee, however, that the plan will bring a more balance approach, as more Americans have begun living in communities where they’re politically and ideologically aligned, the New York Times points out. This divide also increasingly applies to the rural and urban divide as well.

“There’s no perfect map, no panacea,” says Morgan Cullen, a policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But Ohio’s move is the first in the last few years to remove partisanship from the process, Cullen adds.

Some state Republicans are praising the move, calling it a step toward ending polarization in the General Assembly, according to Ohio secretary of state Jon Husted. Democratic Senator Nina Turner, who ran unsuccessfully against Husted for secretary of state in November, agrees that the plan would create more balance.
“I always say Ohio is conservative by design and not by desire,” she says. “This really is a tremendous deal.”
Ohio residents must vote to amend the State Constitution in a November 2015 referendum in order to implement the changes, which means they would not go into effect until the next redistricting in 2021.
MORE: The Simple Fix That May Change How We Vote Forever

The Unlikely Partnership That’s Helping the Poor

When low-income patients end up in the hospital with a medical emergency, it might not only be doctors, but also lawyers who save their lives.
Many medical facilities now have onsite attorneys offering free legal aid to such patients. This service makes sense, since issues such as eviction, homelessness and difficulty attaining services for a disabled or developmentally delayed child can negatively impact a patient’s health.
This model of partnership between the medical and legal professions began in Boston in 1993, and since then, it’s expanded to 260 locations in 38 states, according to NBC News.
The Cox family of Cleveland is an example of how these programs are effective. Tony Cox had a heart attack when he fell off a ladder during a roofing job. Out of work, he fell behind on his mortgage payments, and his family was on the verge of eviction when a legal services attorney stepped in and worked with the bank to renegotiate their loan. “We were getting ready to be homeless, to move in with family,” Donna, his wife, says. “We would have been separated.”
Colleen Cotter, director of Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, tells NBC News, “When we really look at the issues in our clients’ lives, there’s almost always a health issue involved. Poverty is unhealthy, and bad health can lead to economic chaos. I see everything we do as increasing the health and communities we serve.”
Pediatrician Robert Needleman of Case Western University Medical School says, “In general, medicine does not spend much time on the parts of patients’ lives that we can’t fix.” Needleman is striving to change that, however, by instructing medical students to chat with patients about stressors in their lives and issuing referrals to free legal aid when appropriate.
Not only do these partnerships between lawyers and doctors save people from eviction and bring about other positive changes in their lives, but they also save money. In Pennsylvania, Lancaster General Hospital established a clinic for “super-utilizers” (i.e. people who come to the emergency room frequently). When they added a lawyer to the services the facility offered, the patients’ use of the health care system declined by half.
As Megan Sprecher, a Legal Aid Society of Cleveland attorney says about one client she helped avoid homelessness by obtaining a tax refund that had been lost in the mail, “It was a very simple issue, but these systems can be hard to navigate if you’re not familiar with them.”
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The Private School Education That Doesn’t Cost a Dime

Cristo Rey Columbus High School isn’t like other schools.
As part of the 28 schools forming the Cristo Rey network (founded in 1995 in Chicago by Jesuit priest John P. Foley), this Columbus, Ohio private school takes underprivileged kids and gives them the opportunity to learn and work professionally for free.
Initially, a full year’s tuition at Cristo Rey Columbus costs $18,000, according to the Atlantic, but after the school reaches capacity, the price tag drops to around $12,000 to $13,000. And then with a little more finagling, students pay basically nothing.
How is this possible?
First off, Ohio offers a voucher program (worth $5,000 each year) for students to attend another school if the one closest to them is deemed a “failing school.” Fifty-nine percent of Cristo Rey Columbus students are eligible. Additionally, the school offers the unique Professional Work Study Program. For five days a month (one day a week and two days every fourth week), students can work for one of the school’s partner companies or institutions earning about $6,500 a year, which goes straight towards tuition.
Opening in 2013, Cristo Rey Columbus began its inaugural year with 85 students, and this year’s class boasts 117. All come from financially-needy homes where the average income is $35,000 per year. So far, the school has found success: 100 percent of the 2014 graduates were accepted to college.
The school’s faculty is handpicked for their teaching skills and belief in the Cristo Rey mission that education will break the cycle of poverty. As a result, teachers are dedicated to helping the students succeed in the workplace by helping them prep for interviews, offering tips on dressing and giving basic training.
For school Director James Ragland, the hope is that this experience will bolster the students for the future.
“We don’t use the word ‘fear’. We prefer ‘opportunity’,” he tells the Atlantic. “The majority of their day is with us. The message [of a culture of positivity] is delivered in context from the janitor on down (sic) to the president.”
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When These Maine Businesses Went Up for Sale, Their Employees Said ‘We’ll Buy’

In Deer Isle, Maine, more than 60 residents just became business owners, thanks to the formation of the Island Employee Cooperative.
More than a year ago, the employees of Burnt Cove Market, V & S Variety and The Galley learned that the couple who had owned the businesses for 43 years was retiring and selling them. Fearful that the change in ownership would result in loss of jobs and other negative changes, the employees took the only sensible option — they bought the businesses.
This is the largest merger of businesses in the history of cooperatives — collectively, it’s now called the Island Employee Cooperative — and it’s the largest co-op in Maine and the second largest in New England.
The process to establish this groundbreaking co-op wasn’t easy and took more than a year due to all of the legal work and the size of the businesses. Fortunately, the worker/owners had some help from Independent Retailers Shared Services Cooperative and the Cooperative Development Institute , which assisted with the organization of management, governance, legal and financial systems.
In addition, Coastal Enterprises and the Cooperative Fund of New England pitched in financially to help get the cooperative off the ground.
The Island Employee Cooperative’s feat was not an easy one, but it’s an important one. Not only did it preserve the jobs of its employee and the businesses vital to the residents of the town, it also serves as an example for other workers and cities. That’s because the events leading to its formation and its business model are easily adoptable and adaptable to other businesses across the country.
While the Island Employee Cooperative has shown that it’s possible, the road to the formation of cooperatives would be far easier if cities would invest in their development. Some cities are beginning to do so, such as New York, which just pledged $1 million to facilitate the start of worker cooperatives. Ohio has also been dappling in co-ops by giving small grants for research and technical assistance.
However, until more cities start participating, it’s up to the employees. Clearly, we should never underestimate the little guy.
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