A pilot program in Whitley and McCreary counties that was designed to expedite the court process in many felony cases is being terminated after nearly six months of operation.
In addition, criminal defendants in circuit court cases will no longer receive plea deals that call for them to receive probated or conditionally discharged sentences, or recommendations of alternative sentences, such as drug court, under a new policy being implemented by Commonwealth Attorney Allen Trimble’s Office.
Instead, it will strictly be up to the discretion of Whitley Circuit Judges Dan Ballou and Paul Winchester, who will decided at the time of sentencing whether to grant probation or allow a defendant to participate in an alternative program, such as drug court, rather than go to prison.
The new policies were announced in a letter addressed to the “34th Judicial Circuit Criminal Defense Bar,” which is dated Feb. 18. The News Journal obtained the letter Tuesday afternoon.
“I have received notice from both of our Circuit Judges that they will no longer accept informations arising out of the rocket docket procedures in district court,” Trimble starts off the letter.
This means that during district court preliminary hearings, felony charges will not be reduced unless dismissed over the objection of Trimble’s office in court, the letter states.
What is the “rocket docket?”
On Sept. 1, 2015, the 34th Judicial District, which includes Whitley and McCreary counties, became one of 30 circuits to participate in the “rocket docket” pilot program.
Last year the Kentucky General Assembly allocated about $1.2 million to establish the “rocket docket program.”
The goal of the program was two-fold. It was designed as a way to alleviate some of the circuit court’s large docket. It was also designed to resolve drug cases more quickly when the cases likely would have resulted in probation as the end result anyway.
Felony criminal cases reach circuit court through one of two means.
The most common is that the victim or the investigating officer presents evidence to a grand jury, which then decides if it is more likely than not that the accused person committed a crime.
If nine out of 12 grand jurors agree, then the grand jury hands down an indictment, which is a formal allegation of criminal wrongdoing against a defendant.
After someone is indicted, they are arraigned, typically enter a not guilty plea and a process ensues where they are given hearing dates and a trial date. Most of the time these cases end up being resolved several months or sometimes years later via a plea agreement or plea bargain.
The plea agreement usually involves the defendant pleading guilty to a less serious offense in exchange for prosecutors recommending a sentence less than the maximum sentence they could have received if they had been convicted during a trial. Often any prison time the defendant receives will be probated for a period of time, which means they won’t have to serve any more time behind bars if they abide by their probation conditions and stay out of trouble while on probation.
What the “rocket docket” does is bring a felony charge against the defendant utilizing a process called an “information,” which is similar to an indictment.
An “information” involves the defendant, defense attorney and prosecuting attorney agreeing upon the charge that the defendant will be charged with in circuit court in addition to a recommended sentence for that crime.
As part of the “rocket docket” process, a small bond is usually set for the defendant, which enables them to get out of jail between the time they enter their guilty plea and the time they are formally sentenced.
It often takes one to three months between the time someone pleads guilty and is sentenced in felony cases because the Kentucky Department of Probation and Parole must first complete a pre-sentence investigation in all felony cases.
The “rocket docket” program in many cases allowed defendants to remain free on bond between the time of their guilty plea and the time of their formal sentencing.
Between September and December about one-third of new felony cases in Whitley County were resolved via the “rocket docket” process.
Trimble said in the letter that his office would continue to try to work out agreements on bond in district court that would have previously been handled through the “rocket docket” process, but all cases now will be considered by the grand jury.
“Because of the increased case load it mandates a change by our office on how we will deal with cases,” Trimble wrote. Effective March 1, defendants will receive a written plea offer when their attorneys are presented with discovery evidence in their cases.
Discovery evidence is essentially a copy of all the evidence that prosecutors have against a defendant.
If the plea agreement is accepted within 30 days of accepting initial discovery then a plea will be entered during the next available court date.
While prosecutors won’t recommend a probated sentence, defense attorneys can still argue for probation or drug court at the time of sentencing.
“The reason for this position is that the commonwealth knows nothing about the defendant,” Trimble wrote in the letter. “At sentencing the pre-sentence investigation will be available to the court, which will give the court some relevant information on the defendant, which will allow the court to make a more informed decision. As a rule, we will oppose any disposition other than what was set out in the plea agreement.”
Trimble notes in the letter that he realizes the new policy is not without its downside.
“There will be a lot more trials and this will slow down disposition of cases. However, for those defendants who can’t make bond, they will get priority for trials,” Trimble wrote. “If the defendant has previously made bond and the bond has subsequently been set aside because of a violation, this defendant will not get the same consideration.”
The letter states that only in “extraordinary circumstances” will prosecutors vary from the new procedures.
“We all realize that unexpected events occur which could substantially change the circumstances surrounding a case. We will deal with those on a case by case basis,” Trimble wrote.
“But normal life occurrences, such as death of a relative, sick relative, children, birth, age of the defendant and the defendant’s health will not be considered extraordinary circumstances.”
Trimble adds in the letter that he is disappointed that court officials will no longer be able to utilize the “rocket docket” approach in the future because it allowed court officials to resolve lesser felony offenses more quickly saving time and money. It also allowed both prosecutors and defense attorneys to focus more time and energy on more serious cases.
“I realize the ‘rocket docket’ program was never popular with some police officers, court personnel and some of the attorneys. I’m sure this new policy we’re implementing will likewise be unpopular with some of the same group,” Trimble wrote. “Our office will make every effort to present plea offers that are fair to all concerned and a plea offer, if accepted, that will bring justice to the victim of the crime.”