COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Tucked away on the seventh floor of the Municipal Court building in Downtown Columbus, crime victims patiently await a chance to press charges.
The Intake Section, part of City Attorney Zach Klein’s Prosecution Resources Unit, opens its doors to citizens looking to formally accuse someone of a misdemeanor crime. Staff interview and collect evidence from alleged victims, provide referrals for civil protection orders, or involve a mediator to help resolve disputes.
For decades, various iterations of the office have aimed to reduce court backlog, allow police to focus on violent crime, and give victims of low-level offenses a shot at justice. But in recent months, some crime victims say long wait times, unavailable staff, and being ping-ponged between law enforcement agencies have left them feeling abandoned by a once “thriving” public service.
“If you go to the prosecutor’s office and you don’t have (an attorney), I would say be really assertive and take some deep breaths when you go in because it’s not easy,” said a recent Ohio State University graduate who visited the office in March.
The city attorney’s office, however, is limited in the crimes it can prosecute and ultimately charge, spokesperson Pete Shipley said in an email. Partnerships with area law enforcement agencies and recent changes to office procedures are designed to streamline the system for victims, he said.
“These new procedures prioritize violent crimes that may have fallen through the cracks and ensure that every individual that schedules an appointment will have a staff member walk them through the reporting process in person,” Shipley said.
Bounced between agencies, trapped in red tape
The former student, who wished to remain anonymous because of safety concerns, said she arrived at Intake in February to make her case for filing criminal charges against a family member who had begun stalking and harassing her in 2020, she said.
Before she could file a complaint with Intake, the office told her to report the incident to Columbus police, she said. That’s standard for most crime victims, Shipley said, because the office “has recommended, and continues to recommend, that Intake be a last effort to report a crime.”
Not only is the office constrained in what it can prosecute – misdemeanor crimes committed by an adult within Columbus’ bounds – it doesn’t have subpoena powers or other investigative abilities like police, Shipley said.
“Intake officers simply intake the information and evidence provided to complete a report and submit to a prosecutor to determine if there is sufficient evidence warranting the filing of criminal charges,” he said.
Shipley encouraged anyone who believes they have been a victim of crime to first call Columbus police or the relevant law enforcement agency. The overwhelming majority of charges that Intake prosecutes, he said, originate from law enforcement agencies.
But to the recent graduate’s dismay, Columbus police – who took three weeks to process her report – ultimately rejected her complaint on the grounds that it fell outside the division’s purview, she said.
Police instead referred her back to her original starting point: Intake. It’s a common path for crimes not witnessed by police or investigations that require more bandwidth than police can afford.
“I didn’t realize how flooded they (police) got until I got to the prosecutor’s office and saw the amount of people that went in to file a report,” the recent graduate said. “Piles and piles of paperwork that they had to go through; I can’t even imagine what it’s like to work there.”
According to the city attorney’s website, citizens can file a complaint at Intake from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday – a schedule the Ohio State alumna called inaccessible for people who work during the day.
She made it to Intake around 10 a.m. on a Wednesday in between her classes, only to be told to come back the following Monday because there was no one available to timely process her complaint.
“I was pretty frustrated because I don’t have a car and had to take an hour bus ride to get there; on top of that, being told, ‘Oh, I can’t just get this done and over with today,’” she said. “All I wanted was to know what my options were.”
Sandra Hawk’s story was similar. The Columbus mom of six, who recently moved to Florida, complained to Intake earlier this year about an estranged friend she claimed was stalking her house, taking photos of her children, and threatening to kill Hawk and her family.
Hawk said she arrived at Intake around 1 p.m. on a Thursday – an hour before close – “hoping to get it all done” by filing an aggravated menacing and stalking complaint. At the counter, she said an employee told her they didn’t have time to accommodate her.
“I’m trying to get this done ASAP,” she said. “That means I have to wait Friday, all this weekend and come back on a Monday. I work six days a week; I only get one day off at work. I’m already stressed out about the situation, now I have to take off work.”
Resignations, recruiting challenges
In August, several employees resigned from the Intake Section, according to an email from Melanie Tobias, head of the Prosecution Division, that was obtained by NBC4.
Despite advertising the job postings at Ohio State and Capital universities’ law schools, few students have applied for the open roles, which are commonly filled by soon-to-be lawyers, Tobias said.
One of the most significant changes, she said, was the recent transition from accepting walk-ins to operating an appointment-based system. Doing so, Shipley said, will help ensure all citizens get adequate time with a staff member.
Intake was ‘thriving’ in its heyday
Born nearly 50 years ago, the Intake Section – then combined with a Night Prosecutor’s Program, now the office’s Mediation branch – was booming in its early days, according to Columbus attorney Tom Addesa, who mediated disputes for the office in the early 1980s while a law student at Capital University.
The Intake Office processed nearly 20,000 complaints in 1983, with about 75 to 125 individuals appearing at the office each day, according to a report published that year by then-program director Scot Dewhirst. In 2021, the number of complaints dwindled to fewer than 2,000, including those that were referred to mediation.
“Back then, oh gosh, I think intake office opened at 8 or 9 in the morning and we went on until midnight,” Addesa said. “We had night staff and in fact, that meant we would take complaints from citizens up to about 11:30 or so. People could come in that late and we were open on weekends … so that was a really thriving program.”
Addesa, now an attorney at the Columbus-based firm Art, Dewhirst & Wheeler, said the Night Prosecutor Program was well-known and widely accepted among Columbus residents. Word about the program – which sought to resolve interpersonal disputes or other low-level offenses prior to the filing of criminal charges – even made its way to a sex worker looking to mediate a contract between her and a buyer.
“Well, I’m sorry,” Addesa recalled his late colleague, Dewhirst, politely informing the sex worker. “We can’t mediate illegal acts!”
About half of the complaints processed by Intake in 1983, however, dealt with bad checks, Dewhirst wrote in his report – a possible explanation for the discrepancy between the number of complaints handled in the ‘80s and today.
“As fewer people utilized checks to purchase items, that program was phased out, the full-time employee moved to a different division, and the bad check position was not filled,” Shipley said.
The city attorney’s office has also begun referring more cases to the CPD’s Zone Investigations Unit, responsible for investigating misdemeanor crimes, “for police follow up and investigation in place of bringing citizens through the intake process,” Shipley said. The unit receives between 17,000 and 20,000 referrals from patrol officers each year.
Now employed in Columbus, the recent Ohio State graduate said she didn’t have much choice but to abandon her hope for criminal charges or any mechanism to avoid future harassment from her perpetrator.
Intake told her the evidence in her case was not severe enough, she said, to warrant the filing of criminal charges.
Instead, the office advised her to pursue a civil protection order through a separate office within the Franklin County Municipal Court. But she said the lack of evidence "so severe" against her perpetrator and the costly price tag of an attorney renders any attempt to protect herself futile.
“I guess therapy is my other avenue of closure,” she said.