A new program in Mercer County could make the often slow-moving wheels of justice roll a little faster.
Local prosecutors and judges are launching a rocket docket which could speed defendants through the court process, get them out of jail sooner and perhaps save the county some money.
The recent conviction of Paul A. McFerron, 23, of N. College St., on a charge of 3rd-degree burglary is unremarkable except for one thing: the time it took from McFerron’s arrest until his sentencing. McFerron was arrested on Oct. 6 at Walmart after he attempted to leave the store without paying for $148.19 in merchandise. He was sentenced to one year in a state penitentiary by Circuit Judge Darren Peckler a little over one month later, on Nov. 14. Normally, it can take up to a year for a class-D case like McFerron’s to wind its way through the courts.
McFerron was the first offender in Mercer County to be convicted in an informal rocket
docket program, in which prosecutors, judges and even offenders and their legal representatives work together to make the criminal justice system move faster.
On the TV series “Law and Order,” it takes from 15 minutes to half an hour for a capital case to be processed.
But in the real world, it can take anywhere from three months to over a year for even low level offenses to be processed.
Once a defendant has been arrested and charged with a crime, they appear before a judge, who will read the complaint and set the defendant’s bond. Then there is the preliminary hearing, where the prosecution shows probable cause, and then the grand jury is convened to decide if there is enough evidence to return an indictment. Then there is the arraignment, where the defendant enters a formal plea and the trial date is set.
There are lots of steps between an arrest and a conviction, but the rocket docket skips a few of these steps in order to speed up the process.
“It cuts out the grand jury process,” explained Mercer County Attorney Ted Dean.
Instead of being indicted, all parties—including the defendant and the defense attorney—sign a document in which the defendant agrees to plead guilty and either be sentenced or diverted to treatment.
“We can’t handle every case that way,” said Dean, who said he was hoping to place another three cases in the rocket docket this month. “There are a pretty good number we can.”
Dean said the vast majority of cases he handles are drug related. The rocket docket is set up to handle cases involving nonviolent offenders who don’t have significant criminal histories.
“It doesn’t have to be a drug case, but it’s geared towards drug cases,” he said. “The rocket docket can shorten the time these cases can stay active.”
Mercer and Boyle are the latest counties in Kentucky to start a rocket docket program. Officials at Boyle County—which recently received a $15,000 grant from the Kentucky Attorney General’s office to implement a rocket docket—have estimated that up to 120 cases each year could go through the program. Mercer’s program is smaller and more informal, Dean said.
“We felt we could absorb the extra workload between our offices,” Dean said, referring to his office, the staff at the local judges’ offices and the office of Commonwealth’s Attorney Richie Bottoms.
While Mercer’s rocket docket is starting small, Bottoms said he’d like to see it grow.
“We’re hoping once it’s used more, other defendants and defense attorneys will be interested,” he said.
By speeding up the time it takes for defendants to be processed through the courts, Bottoms said the rocket docket could help accomplish two goals. First, it could help defendants get to treatment faster and hopefully relieve overcrowding at Boyle County Detention Center. Second, it could save both counties money. The counties pay to house inmates until they are found guilty and sentenced. After that, the state picks up the tab.
To learn more, check out this week’s issue of the Harrodsburg Herald.