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Rocket docket reboot: Officials pleased with first six months of program

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Nearly 60 cases closed in first 19 weeks

By Sarah Bennett

Within the first 19 weeks of the re-implementation of rocket docket, nearly 60 felony court cases were closed through the county’s program.

From date of arrest to sentencing, an average of 45 days elapsed, according to the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office. Of 58 defendants, 40 were in custody as county inmates, meaning Hardin County foots much of the cost of incarceration.

Prior to rocket docket’s re-implementation in January, a defendant typically spent six to 10 months in jail as a county prisoner before sentencing, prosecutors said.

“There’s no due process that’s been compromised,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Shane Young said. “Everybody’s still being treated the same. It’s getting someone where they need to be.”

In its first six months, the program, which can quicken adjudication for defendants accused in property or drug crimes, has proved time and cost efficient for the local justice system, according to officials.

When a suspect is arrested on felony charges, the case typically begins in district court, explained Chris McCrary, first assistant commonwealth’s attorney.

After arraignment, the next step is a preliminary hearing, which must occur within 10 days of arrest by state law, McCrary said. During that hearing, a district court judge determines if there is probable cause to believe the defendant committed the alleged action.

If a finding of probable cause is made, the judge sends the case to a grand jury, he said. If the defendant is incarcerated, the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office has 60 days to develop a case and present it to the grand jury for review.

Through the rocket docket program, a defendant agrees to a plea offer and waives a preliminary hearing and grand jury review, he said. This allows for a quicker arraignment and disposition in circuit court.

“They’re not getting a better offer,” McCrary said. “They’re getting the same offer and they’re pleading to the same stuff that they would have been pleading to much later.”

The Hardin County Attorney’s Office provides the commonwealth’s office with potential rocket docket cases, and prosecutors conference those cases with the defense attorney and investigating officer.

“The prosecutor, the defense attorney and the police officer have an opportunity to all three talk about the case,” said Eric Carr, assistant commonwealth’s attorney. “It’s close in time to the event. The memory of the defendant and the officers and everybody involved is fresh.”

County Attorney Jenny Oldham estimated her office now sees one preliminary hearing a week whereas a year ago it would average four or five.

The process allows defendants to leave custody and enter drug treatment more quickly, Young said. If they are receiving a to-serve sentence, it expedites their transition from county to state detention.

“There are benefits to being on the state side,” Young said. “They’re a little more liberal (with) visitation. It’s an advantage for them if they’re going to be serving to get onto the state side. Plus, there are some (state-funded) programs available to them that they can take advantage of.”

The move from county to state custody also can be cost efficient, officials said. According to Hardin County Judge-Executive Harry Berry, it costs an average of $40 per day to house a county inmate at Hardin County Detention Center whereas Kentucky pays $31 a day to incarcerate a state inmate at the jail.

While the jail asks county inmates to pay $30 per day, Jailer Danny Allen said most do not.

In 2012, 60 percent of the jail’s population consisted of county inmates whereas 40 percent were in state custody, Allen said. Currently, those numbers sit at 55 percent county and 45 percent state.

A year ago, the jail’s daily population averaged 635 inmates, he said. That number has dropped significantly in recent months and currently sits at 480 inmates, Allen said.

In June, the jail released 58 more inmates than it booked, he added.

“We’re not holding them for a year now while they wait for a jury trial,” Allen said about the impact of rocket docket on the jail.

While some of the changes in the jail’s population can be attributed to swifter adjudication, Allen believes it primarily is the result of the Department of Corrections’ mandatory re-entry supervision program, which releases nonviolent offenders who are within six months of completing their sentences on parole.

For law enforcement officers, the program reduces time spent in court, which allows them to be more efficient, said Detective Sgt. Rex Allaman with the Hardin County Sheriff’s Office.

When rocket docket was active in the past, Allaman said he brought 30 to 40 cases per month to court as a detective assigned to the Greater Hardin County Narcotics Task Force.

However, that number was reduced by half when the program was eliminated in 2009 as he spent more time waiting for court hearings, Allaman said. An officer could arrive at 8:30 a.m. at district court to testify at a preliminary hearing, but that hearing might not begin until 1 p.m.

Time an officer spends waiting to sit in front of a judge as opposed to bringing criminal cases to court is “dead time,” Allaman said.

“Financially, the justice system is a huge monster to run,” he said. “We’re paid to be somewhere.”

Relaunching the program has been a “win” for the county and local court system as well as the defendants and their families, Berry said.

“We know it works,” the judge-executive said. “It worked from past experiences. It’s just the willingness. We’re certainly pleased the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office is willing to do this now and we’re happy to fund some of this.”

Sarah Bennett can be reached at (270) 505-1750 or sbennett@thenewsenterprise.com.