Debate over the future of the Justice Center and prison cannot ignore criminal justice reforms: Eric Foster


ATLANTA — In 2016, I was the personal bailiff for the Honorable Judge Raymond L. Pianka of the Cleveland Housing Court. That year, Judge Pianka received a communication from Cuyahoga County officials requesting his participation in a “work session” regarding the potential replacement of the Justice Center. If you knew Judge Pianka, you could have guessed his answer. He believed that buildings belonged to history, deserving of preservation as much as artifacts displayed in a museum.

I remember Judge Pianka, who died suddenly the following year, standing in the doorway of his chambers and telling the story of the Justice Center, the imported stone that comprises the structure, the unique architectural design, the art installation that located in front of Ontario Entrance on street. He spoke of the Justice Center as if it were a longtime resident of Cleveland, with firmly planted roots, that deserved to be protected instead of neglected or pushed to the margins. By the end of his column, the point was clear: he didn’t want to be involved in replacing such a historic building.

Judge Pianka had no desire to attend the session, but he wanted to know what happened during the session. Has anyone else had concerns like him? Has the decision to replace the building already been made? If so, who did it and when? How much is it going to cost? Why replace rather than repair/restore? This is where I, the faithful personal usher, made my entrance. It was a simple reconnaissance mission: open your eyes and ears wide and report.

As you can imagine, I was by far the least important person in the room. Ninety-eight percent of the participants were judges. The other 1.9% were court administrators. The remaining 0.1% was me: Judge Pianka’s personal bailiff. I completed my mission despite the awkwardness that came with several judges staring holes in my face, clearly wondering who I was in the double hockey sticks. A few others approached me directly. During the entire meeting, I would have liked to have a name tag on which was written: “The eyes and ears of Judge Pianka.

Cuyahoga County officials who coordinated the working session proclaimed at the outset that a decision regarding the replacement of the Justice Center had yet to be made. Of course, such a decision would not be made without the input of stakeholders such as the judiciary. They were only looking for feedback on what we would like a new justice center to look like if, hypothetically, one were to be built.

I reported to Judge Pianka what was discussed. He was already on the offensive. He had contacted former Cuyahoga County architect Berj Shakarian. Judge Pianka wanted to know what the replacement would cost versus what the repair/restoration would cost. He asked Berj to write a report.

Berj wrote a report and published his findings. He concluded that the county consultant had grossly underestimated the replacement cost of the Justice Center. The consultant estimated $575 million. Berj estimated $1.35 billion. Berj also concluded that the consultant had overestimated the cost of the repair. The consultant estimated $236 million compared to Berj’s calculation of $118 million. Later reports showed that the repair costs would be significant. However, Berj maintained that the replacement would exceed $1 billion.

Fast forward about six years. We’re still talking about what to do with the Justice Center…sort of. After a spate of deaths, a federal investigation, and a criminal conviction of the county jail’s former superintendent, it appears county officials have decided a new jail is needed. Note that I said jail, not Justice Center, which currently includes the County Jail, Common Pleas Courthouse, Cleveland City Court, and Cleveland Police Headquarters.

The estimated cost of a new autonomous prison? Up to $750 million. The estimated cost of a new stand-alone courthouse? $818 million, not including land. The estimated cost of a new autonomous police headquarters? $115 million.

If you do the math, it seems Berj Shakarian was right. Or, at least, fairer than the consultants. The grand total for these facilities? $1.68 billion. No small amount. Add that to other capital projects that may be coming soon, like the Browns considering a new stadium with a $1 billion price tag, and you don’t have to be an accountant to wonder where the hell will come from. money for this project.

Eric Foster is a columnist for The Plain Dealer and

I’m not going to claim that I know what to do about the Justice Center. There are certainly valid arguments for building a new courthouse, jail and police headquarters. But there are certainly equally valid arguments for repairing or restoring them as well.

Whatever decision is made, there are some things I think we need to remember. First, buildings don’t crumble in a vacuum. They do it because people neglect them. It doesn’t matter that we’re spending $1.68 billion on new facilities. Our children will have the same conversation that we are having now 30, 40, 50 years from now, if we don’t keep in mind that these new structures will require a level of care – at least it seems to me – that we have not done towards the Justice Center. Buildings, like the people who pass through them, demand time and attention.

Second, replacing the buildings that house the criminal justice system is not a substitute for real criminal justice reform. For any real reform, it must happen in the hearts and minds of the people who control the levers of justice in the system. The criminal justice system is not a collection of buildings. This is how the decisions of judges, prosecutors, police, legislators and others act in concert. And unless those decisions change, or the people who make them change, criminal justice reform is nothing more than a political slogan.

People died in the prison because it was overcrowded and those responsible for the safety and security of inmates neglected their duties. Now suppose we build a new $750 million prison. Unless the justice system prioritizes alternatives to incarceration, prosecutors remember the purpose of bail is not remand, police take people to diversion, lawmakers remember everyone is “tough on crime” until someone they know commits a crime, and prison officials start viewing inmates as people in their charge rather than criminals who deserve hell on earth, the end result will be the same. People will surely die.

Just this time, lives will be lost in a much nicer building.

Editorial Board Community Member Eric Foster is a columnist for The Plain Dealer and Foster is a lawyer in private practice. The opinions expressed are his own.

To reach Eric Foster: [email protected]

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