Prosecutors call it "rocket docket," and it lifted off in Graves County this week.
The Graves County commonwealth's and county attorney's offices received a $40,000 grant for the program, in which some people charged with non-violent felony offenses, to which they wish to plead guilty, may choose to speed their cases through the court system.
Normally, the process takes months. People arrested in Graves County meet a pre-trial officer and have a bail bond set within 24 hours. They are generally arraigned within five days. Those charged with felonies are entitled to a preliminary hearing within 10 days of arraignment, if in custody, or 20 days if not, unless they waive that right.
In Graves County, the grand jury has met monthly since January. Before that, it was every two months. If the grand jury indicts a person on felony offenses, arraignment must then take place in circuit court, usually about three weeks later. Finally, six to eight more weeks later, the person has a pre-trial conference in which he or she may plead guilty or ask for a trial to be scheduled.
"So it's a pretty lengthy process before you ever get to enter a plea in a felony," Commonwealth Attorney Richie Kemp said.
And after all that, it could still be another month or two before the judge sentences the defendant.
"So if you're sitting in jail all this time, that's costing the county money every day," County Attorney John Cunningham said, explaining that the state is responsible for the cost only after a defendant has been sentenced.
The rocket docket program aims to conclude eligible cases within a week to 10 days.
The Graves County Fiscal Court contributed $15,000 of the grant cost, which helped to hire part-time Assistant County Attorney Scott Robbins as a part-time assistant commonwealth attorney, giving him authority to handle felony plea deals. It also paid for a part-time administrative assistant to work more hours to regularly upload rocket docket participation statistics to a state software program.
The way the rocket docket program works is that defense attorneys will get a plea offer from Robbins to discuss with their clients on a defendant's first or second court appearance. The defendant may then choose to participate or not, with advice from the defense attorney.
"The defendant is not doing it blindly," Cunningham said.
Participating defendants sign an agreement, waiving future district court appearances and grand jury proceedings, allowing the case to move to circuit court. The next Monday, the defendant will be arraigned, plead guilty and be sentenced all at once in circuit court if they still want to participate. If not, the cases will go to trial with Robbins handling the prosecution.
Graves County's program began July 1, and the first two defendants to use it pleaded guilty and were sentenced Monday. The grant is for one year, but the state Prosecutors Advisory Council may renew it if it is satisfied with the results.
"We have to show that it's working, that the numbers are there," Cunningham said.
Kemp and Cunningham both stressed that the plea offers will be the same with the rocket docket as it would be going through the more lengthy traditional court process.
"It's important to let people know this is not soft on crime," Kemp said, with Cunningham quickly chiming in to say, "It's quick on crime."
County officials like it because it saves them money housing defendants in jail for months, Cunningham said. Instead of costing the county $25 per prisoner per day, Graves County will receive $32 per day from the state for each inmate already sentenced until that inmate is moved elsewhere in the system. That typically takes months, and some serve out their entire sentences in the Graves County Restricted Custody Center.
In a January 2019 report on the program to the attorney general and Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, Gina Carey, the program coordinator for the state's unified prosecutorial system, said the rocket docket initiative has saved local jails $82.3 million between July 15, 2015, when the first program began in Kentucky, through Nov. 30, 2018.
Defendants like it, too. They can more quickly move on to time in rehabilitation, in prison or on probation, Kemp said. In cases like failure to pay child support, it makes it possible for the person to complete a sentence and get back to work more quickly to support the child. Defendants who live out of state and often are unable to bond out of jail can get back home more quickly.
The program was the only rocket docket initiative in the Purchase Area, as of Carey's January report. The Ballard/Carlisle/Hickman/Fulton county circuit previously had a rocket docket program, but it was not renewed by the Prosecutors Advisory Council. The closest other program is in the Livingston/Lyon/Caldwell/Trigg county circuit.
Only the most minor level of felony crimes, those listed as class D and punishable by either one to five or one to three years in prison, are eligible for the rocket docket program. Additionally, the Graves County program does not accept those charged with violent crimes, drug trafficking or any crime related to firearms use.
It would also have been impossible to get the grant approved without buy-in from the fiscal court, Cunningham said, adding, "I want to give all the credit to the commissioners. They jumped on this."
Kemp said his office had applied for the program in February but had been declined until the Kentucky Prosecutors Advisory Council saw the fiscal court's willingness to help pay to bring the program to Graves County. The letter approving the program after the second application arrived June 21, giving the prosecutors, judicial staff and circuit clerk's office only a few days to prepare for it.
"I've heard nothing but positive feedback," Kemp said. "Everybody is excited about the program and the reduced burden on our judicial system."