CLEVELAND — Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas Judge Brendan Sheehan sees many people at their lowest points.
“As a judge I see everything from guns to drugs to assaults. I see it all,”he said.
But what troubled him was the non-violent offenders who were facing illegal gun possession felony charges.
“A lot of people saying ‘I needed a gun for protection in my community. I need a gun because I’m afraid because my brother was killed.’ I mean, these are the things we are hearing,” he said.
Sheehan said he felt many of these defendants needed support more than punishment.
“What we’ve been doing for the last 20 years, obviously, isn’t working. Violence rates are going higher, so, let’s think outside of the box,” he said.
In the latest Cleveland police report, guns have been used in 103 homicides, 512 robberies and 995 felonious assaults, this year alone.
Sheehan started small and created the Violence Intervention Program or ‘Gun Docket’ in 2019.
“We put this together to see if we could make a difference and catch these young men and women before they get involved in serious acts of violence,” he said.
Completion of the program allows non-violent offenders with a gun charge to wipe the felony from their record.
Sheehan collaborated with probation officers, the prosecutor’s office and community groups like Cleveland Peacemakers Alliance to create a support system around participants.
Myesha Crowe is the executive director of Cleveland Peacemakers Alliance. She said the program is intense and it’s a commitment for participants, but they’ve seen people change.
“We’re seeing people who really want to try and be committed to being their best selves without a felony on their record,” she said.
Peacemakers provide participants with mentors, job outreach, case management and, most importantly, a new way of thinking.
“These young people are not being judged by what they did, but they’re being congratulated and celebrated for where they’re going,” she said.
Crowe’s organization works with participants to eliminate barriers to their success.
“This courtroom is just different in a way that you have every opportunity to be successful, that you have a group of people and a community that are only linked to your success but to be there to cheer you on,” she said.
The court docket just received a $750,000 federal grant and now, MetroHealth is another community partner involved in the program and will offer mental health and trauma counseling.
“The partnership with Metro has made a big difference in the program. That trauma piece is a piece in the criminal justice system that we never really encountered. No one has ever went back and asked somebody ‘what’s gone on in your background that makes you think you need to carry a gun?,’” said Judge Sheehan.
Sarah Henderickson is the director for MetroHealth’s Institute for H.O.P.E Trauma Recovery Center. The H.O.P.E. Trauma Recovery Center will receive $275,000 over three years to provide a trauma-informed counselor and coach for participants.
“We are able to provide opportunities to work through some of the things that have happened historically, generationally and experientially, that have contributed to their their trauma and potentially the trauma and harm of others,” said Henderickson.
But she said her team of licensed social workers and counselors will be there for participants to not only provide the trauma therapy, but to support participants in their journey, address how safe they feel in their community, and giving them social resources to better set them up for success.
“It is extra work. I mean they're signing up for trauma processing and resourcing and a lot of people digging into their life and being there for them in ways that can be really uncomfortable,” she said. “If someone's coming to us, they're coming to us because they want to.”
The end goal of the docket is not a clean record, it’s a fresh start.
“It can sound like we're oversimplifying a complicated situation, but sometimes we can complicate a simple solution,” said Hendrickson.
Participants are in the program for an average of about two years.