The Marshall Project has been scraping criminal case records from the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas for over a year, building a nearly-complete database of cases from 2016 to present.
For this story, we focused primarily on defendants with multiple criminal cases. Such cases represent the majority of all those in the system.
To understand how people cycle in and out of courtrooms, we scraped their first case if it fell outside of our existing dataset, which starts in 2016. This allowed us to understand the age that people first encountered the justice system and the first charges that brought them there.
Case records include the outcome (also known as the disposition) of each charge that is present at the end of the case. The disposition can be a guilty plea by the defendant, a jury or court finding of guilty or not guilty, diversion that could result in expungement, or various types of dismissal (the most common being a “nolle prosequi” when the indictment is dropped by the court or prosecutor).
In order to calculate the percentage of repeat defendants who were found or pled guilty to violent crimes, we used Ohio’s list of statutes considered to be “offenses of violence.” We filtered our cases using this list of statutes to include only cases with a guilty disposition for at least one violent charge.
How do we understand the economic demographics of repeat defendants?
The court does not track the economic demographics of defendants in their public case search. We must use the defendant’s provided address and look up community demographics estimated by the U.S. Census.
The most reliable geographic identifier for defendants in our data is their ZIP code. We joined defendant ZIP codes to U.S. Census American Community Survey 2020 5-year estimates using ZIP Code Tabulation Areas.
What are cases related to addiction, mental health issues, and poverty?
Our analysis included both quantitative and qualitative methods. The reporters read the indictments and other docket entries in hundreds of cases. In those court documents, a clear picture emerged that many people were cycling through the court for crimes related to addiction, mental health issues, and poverty. In-depth interviews with sources, some of whom are featured in the story, revealed similar themes and patterns.
To quantify cases related to addiction, mental health, and poverty, we looked at the most common charges faced by repeat defendants. Drug possession was the most common charge.
Indictment vs. final charges
In some cases, the final charges (and their disposition) differ from the initial indictment charges because they changed during the course of the court proceedings. For this analysis, where we focus on the disposition, we rely only on the final charges.