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About the Public Defender

 

The Cuyahoga County Office of the Public Defender office was created in 1977 to provide legal services to indigent adults and juveniles charged with violations of the criminal code. Our Office provides consistently excellent representation and vigorous advocacy to protect the rights of low income people in criminal, juvenile delinquency, and parental rights matters. We treat each client with dignity and respect and tailor our representation to meet their unique needs. We ensure that our clients receive an ardent defense and equal justice throughout their involvement with the legal system.


Over the last 40 years, the Office has grown in both size and scope. Our Office now consists of over 130 employees consisting of attorneys, social workers, investigators, paralegals, law clerks, and other support staff. The Office is composed of the following four divisions:


  • Felony: Our Felony Division represents indigent adults charged with felony crimes in the General Division of the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas. Every year we defend the rights of thousands of Cuyahoga County residents charged with felony crimes ranging from capital murder to felony drug offenses.


  • Juvenile: Our Juvenile Division represents indigent juveniles charged with offenses and indigent parents in abuse, neglect, and dependency proceedings involving Children and Family Services. Every year we advocate for thousands of children between the ages of 12 and 18 and defend the parental rights of thousands of parents.


  • Municipal: Our Municipal Division has a contract with the City of Cleveland to provide legal representation to all individuals charged with crimes, carrying the possibility of a jail sentence, in Cleveland Municipal Court. On an annual basis, we provide legal representation in nearly 20,000 cases including initial appearances in felonies charged in the City of Cleveland.


  • Appellate and Post-Conviction: Our Appellate and Post-Conviction Division provides representation to indigent children and adults convicted of crimes and indigent parents who have lost their parental rights in direct appeals to the Eighth District Court of Appeals and the Ohio Supreme Court. We also handle a variety of other post-conviction matters including the sealing of felony records for adults.


The Cuyahoga County Office of the Public Defender has been led by Chief Public Defender Cullen Sweeney since January 2021. Cullen has devoted his professional career to advocacy on behalf of poor and marginalized individuals and communities. After graduating college at Miami University of Ohio, Cullen spent four years living in Anchorage, Alaska, working as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer with Native Alaskan communities and also served as Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity-Anchorage. In 1999, Cullen returned to school at the University of Wisconsin to pursue a joint degree program in Law and Public Policy. Throughout law school, Cullen was significantly involved in public interest projects and clinics and received a public interest law award from the Wisconsin Bar Association.


Cullen began his career with the Cuyahoga County Public Defender in its appellate division in 2005, after clerking for two years with a federal judge. At the Public Defender’s Office, Cullen has handled hundreds of appeals in the Eighth District Court of Appeals, authored several amicus briefs in the Ohio Supreme Court, and has personally argued more than a dozen cases before the Ohio Supreme Court. He has also handled numerous cases in the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court and litigated habeas corpus petitions in federal court. In 2017, Cullen became both the supervisor of the Appellate Division and the Deputy Chief Public Defender. He served in that capacity until his appointment in 2021 as Chief Public Defender.


While the Office fulfills its mission of providing consistently excellent legal representation, Cullen also recognizes the Public Defender’s role in advocating for systemic criminal justice reform. Advocacy priorities include bail reform, race equity, police accountability, and sentencing reform; addressing the root causes of wrongful convictions; reducing the prosecution of juveniles as adults; and the abolition of the death penalty.