By Jim Hannah
The Cincinnati Enquirer
COVINGTON - Kenton County is one of 18 judicial districts across Kentucky to adopt recently a "rocket docket" to prosecute felony cases more quickly.
Kenton Commonwealth's Attorney Bill Crockett (left) talks with San Juan Romero, a court Spanish interpreter. The county has adopted a 'rocket docket' to expedite felony trials and cut jail expenses.
The Enquirer/PATRICK REDDY
The county's leaders hope the plan to speed up the prosecution of felons will free up beds in its overcrowded jail and ultimately save money.
"I was speaking at a Kentucky judges association meeting when I introduced the idea of a rocket docket," said state Attorney General Greg Stumbo. "Everyone was about half asleep until I told them it was a way to save 20 percent on their jail budgets."
Stumbo said that, as he campaigned last year for the attorney general's post, he repeatedly heard from judge-executives struggling to pay for jail operations.
Now that he's elected, he said, he's been traveling statewide to push for the rocket docket. Stumbo's office is printing brochures explaining the program and producing a videotape for those interested.
Kenton Commonwealth's Attorney Bill Crockett said his proposal is a modified version of a plan from Jefferson County that has been acclaimed for making the largest court system in the state one of the fastest to bring cases to trial.
In Kenton County, Crockett said, the arresting officers and defense attorney will be asked to come to court 30 minutes before the preliminary hearing, which determines whether enough evidence exists to send the case to a grand jury. The hope is the early meeting of defense attorneys, police and prosecutors will result in a quick resolution, such as a plea agreement.
The counties to start up the program this spring stretch from the western Kentucky county of Marshall to eastern Kentucky's Pike County.
Kenton Deputy Judge-executive Scott Kimmich said it was an easy sell for officials here.
The program speeds up the time it takes for felony cases to go to trial. This saves counties money, Kimmich said, because once a prisoner is sentenced, the burden of housing them is shifted to the state.
"It's a win-win situation for us," said Kimmich. "It will either help relieve overcrowding by having inmates transferred more quickly to prison, or the state will pay for us to house their inmates."
County officials completed a nearly $1 million renovation last month to relieve overcrowding. A proposal for a new jail stalled after a payroll tax increase to pay for it was challenged in court.
Kenton Jailer Terry Carl said the jail has 346 beds but is averaging 411 prisoners. He said it costs the county $43 a day to house a prisoner.
"I don't know the full details of the plan yet, but anything that will speed up the system and move it along will be good for us. I don't know yet how much it will save, but if it opens up beds, I'm all in favor of it."
Lt. Col. Scott Colvin, in charge of jail operations, said the potential for real cost-saving is evident.
For example, sentencing just 100 inmates five days earlier could save the jail $21,500 in a year.
"We are excited about the prospects," Colvin said. "We know the process worked in Jefferson County."
The state's largest judicial district, Jefferson County, has had a rocket docket for more than 10 years. Until this year, the only other district with such a system was Hardin County.
An analysis of statistical data from Jefferson County in 2003 showed the average number of days in custody on rocket docket cases - from arrest to the circuit court plea - was 26.6 days. The average number of days on non-rocket docket cases was 75.6 days.
Jefferson County handled 3,434 felony indictments in 2003, of which 774 cases, or 22.6 percent were channeled through the rocket docket.
Kenton County is seventh-fastest, according to an analysis of court records by the Courier-Journal in Louisville.
While the Jefferson County plan is a formal, state-sanctioned alternative system for handing cases that requires a special docket and judicial approval, Crockett said his plan is more a prosecutor's policy.
Crockett said he wants to eliminate the sometimes 30 days it takes to get a case presented to a grand jury for an indictment.
Kenton Chief Circuit Judge Greg Bartlett said that under the current system, a prisoner sometimes spends more time in jail awaiting trial than he would have if he accepted a plea agreement at the beginning of the criminal case.
"Anything that expedites the disposition of cases should be a good thing," he said. "If (Crockett) thinks this will make his office more efficient, then go for it."
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