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Cuyahoga program helps developmentally disabled navigate the justice system

Antonio Boone walks outside on the sidewalk of the Lorain Branch of the Cleveland Public Library.
J. Nungesser
/
Ideastream Public Media
44-year-old Antonio Boone says the help he received from the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities forensic unit helped to make his journey through the court system easier - and ultimately helped in his success to improve his life. Within the next two months, Boone hopes to be fully off probation.

People with developmental disabilities face many challenges. A brush with the criminal justice system can make life much more complicated. One unit at the Cuyahoga Board of Developmental Disabilities is working to help them navigate the system.

Antonio Boone remembers the night that led to his arrest.

"Me and my brother was going to visit a friend, and we ended up drinking," said Boone. "And on the way home, the police pulled us over because we were going real slow. I was driving, and we was about to get on the freeway."

Before his arrest, the 44-year-old from Cleveland’s near east side was heading in the wrong direction.

"I was drinking every day, I was getting sick every day. (With) my stomach, I was catching an ulcer," said Boone. "And I think I would have been dead if I didn't come through the system. Yeah, probably could have gotten an accident."

Boone has a developmental disability and that opened the door to services provided by a special unit at the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities. The forensic unit provides wrap-around services to those with functional limitations going through the criminal justice system.

Boone was first helped by the unit when he was 15 and charged with aggravated robbery. Over the years, Boone said the ongoing support has helped turn his life around.

Missy Kuhn in front of a Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities sign at their location in downtown Cleveland.
J. Nungesser
/
Ideastream Public Media
Missy Kuhn is a Behavioral Health Supervisor with the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities. Kuhn says Cuyahoga County has the largest forensic unit offering wrap-around services to those with developmental disabilities in Ohio.

"I wouldn't know what to do without them. You know they helped me out very, very much emotionally," said Boone. "(They) supported me. Like, I was very nervous, and they made it okay."

Ensuring Rights are Protected

According to a Bureau of Justice report from 2016, 30% of jail inmates reported having a cognitive disability — a number far greater than the general public.

"We want to promote and advocate to ensure that individuals with DD, (that) their rights are being protected (and) that they understand the legal process," said Missy Kuhn, a behavioral health supervisor with the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities. Kuhn said Cuyahoga County has the largest forensic unit in Ohio.

"So this is something that really started and was initiated in the early 90s when, our mental health court was, recognizing and the jail systems were recognizing that many individuals with developmental disabilities were landing, in the jail system," said Kuhn. "And so it started really kind of grassroots."

Kuhn said the team looks to identify early that someone may benefit from its support. It works with a client to make sure they have the medications or comfort objects that allow them to remain calm in the courtroom.

Voice for the Voiceless

The team is with them every step of the way. That includes making sure they understand what their rights are. Kuhn said they also work with individuals who are getting released from prison and those on parole. She said the unit acts as a direct link between the courts, internal Cuyahoga Board of Developmental Disabilities services and any external community service providers.

Probation Officer Andrew Mason with a client in Judge Calabreeze's court room.
J. Nungesser
/
Ideastream Public Media
Probation Officer Andrew Mason with a client. Mason works with the developmentally disabled and said that his goal is to make sure the defendant knows what is going on at all times, especially in court.

Andrew Mason is a Probation Officer who works with the developmentally disabled. He said it’s a team approach that includes 3 forensic liaisons.

"We sit down, we discuss or staff the case, and then we go on the record so the defendant knows what is going on," said Mason.

Mason said the forensic unit serves as many as 55 people at a time. Four probation officers work with the developmentally disabled currently.

"It is kind of cliche but it's kind of like we're the voice for the voiceless," said Mason. "Especially people with intellectual disabilities or any kind of disability."

The number of people served by the forensics unit has increased nearly 17% since 2021. Last year, the team worked with nearly 300 individuals. That included Antonio Boone who greatly appreciates the support he’s gotten related to his drunk driving arrest last year.

"If I didn't go to court, I would probably be drinking, you know?" said Boone.

Within the next two months, Boone hopes to fully be off probation and ready to start the next chapter in his life.

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J. Nungesser is a multiple media journalist at Ideastream Public Media.