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City Club Annual Forum on The American Justice System

On Tuesday evening, September 19th, we attended the City Club annual forum on the American justice system which this year dealt with plea bargaining. The program was in the form of a panel moderated by The Honorable John J. Russo, Presiding and Administrative Judge in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas and consisting of Ms. Vicki Ward, noted Defense Attorney; Mr. Saleh Awadallah, Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor; Mr. Timothy Young, Director of the Office of the Ohio Public Defender; and The Honorable Michael P. Donnelly, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court.

Also taking part in this program was Mr. Aaron Slodov who operated an online system located at "remesh.chat/justice" in which audience members could respond to questions and make comments about what they were hearing via their cell phones. We talked to Mr. Slodov before the program and learned that he had previously put his talents to work on programs conducted by "Margaret W. Wong & Associates" such as the refugee summit at Cleveland City Hall in October, 2014.

When we first arrived we talked to Mr. John and Ms. Leonita Mannarino who are good friends with our Mr. Brian Marek. They said that they were there as interested citizens and because they really admire Judge Donnelly. Other people that we talked to were Shaker Heights Municipal Court Judge K.J. Montgomery who helped set up this program; Mr. Frank R. DeSantis of "Thompson Hine" who asked us to say "hello" to his good friend Ms. Margaret W. Wong as did Mr. Michael O'Shea of "Lipson & O'Shea Legal Group".

Initially, we shared a table with Dr. Sri Thakkilapati, Ph.D., Policy Researcher with the "American Civil Liberties Union" but then we were invited to come forward and take an empty seat at the "Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association" table where we sat next to Mr. Jaye M. Schlachet who is quite active in the "Cuyahoga Criminal Defense Lawyers Association" and a very good friend of our Mr. Richard Drucker.

The conversation about plea bargaining was kicked off by Mr. Dan Mouthrop, the City Club's President and CEO, who said that it would be good to hear about it from our panelists who are all working "in the trenches" and the big question was "what does the public get out of it?"

Then Judge Donnelly conducted a brief slide show that explained what plea bargaining actually is and its impact. Basically a plea bargain is supposed to be a contact for the benefit of the accused in which there is accountability for criminal behavior which actually occurred. Accordingly, welearned that in 2014 in Cuyahoga County about 97% of criminal cases were resolved by plea bargaining and in the cases actually tried there was a 71% conviction rate. In the course of the conversation, such topics relating to plea bargaining that were touched upon included victims rights (i.e. victims often believe the sentence rendered through this process might be too little or sometimes even too much) and the "collateral consequences" of plea bargaining which means that even though the accused might have spent less time incarcerated because of the plea bargain, she/he also lost a lot of her/his rights as a citizen such as not being able to hold certain jobs after release and forfeiting the right to vote.

Of no small cause for concern is the reasonable possibility that a wrongfully accused person might plead guilty to a lesser charge in the plea bargaining procedure in order to avoid an inevitably much harsher sentence should she/he actually be tried and convicted. As one of the panelists, said "it is not about truth/justice but risk/benefit."

It seemed that all of the panelists did support plea bargaining in some form but believed that certain reforms/improvements were in order. As for the audience, the polling on "remesh" revealed that 61% believed that the plea bargaining in its present form is not working.

Our impression was that plea bargaining and its consequences could be very complex so we were concerned about its how it might affect the foreign/born population who are still struggling with English and a new culture so we talked to several of the panelists afterwards and they shared our concerns because finding qualified translators is still a problem in many instances and even though the translators could make the words be understood the overall situation can still be very overwhelming and confusing as is the case with the "collateral consequences" for example.

For that matter, even though we have a college degree and have lived in the U.S. all of our lives, we had a tough time following a lot of the legalese that was said that evening despite the panelists' sincere efforts to be as accessible as possible.

 

Michael Patterson

Community Liaison,

Margaret W. Wong & Assoc. Co., LLC

 

Kwasi Bediako