‘Rocket docket’ program should ease court caseloads

Prosecutors have started a new program in Clark County in hopes of resolving some felony cases quickly and thereby saving money and resources.

Clark County Attorney William Elkins said the new “rocket docket” started Feb. 1, after receiving approval from the state Prosecutors Advisory Council and an agreement with David Smith, the commonwealth’s attorney for Clark and Madison counties.

The process, Elkins said, will allow some criminal defendants facing felony charges in Clark District Court to waive the grand jury process, agree to a written offer and then plead guilty the following day in Clark Circuit Court.

Elkins and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Heidi Engel said a defendant will typically appear in district court for a preliminary hearing and will be offered the opportunity to resolve it without sending the case through the grand jury process, which can take up to 60 days.

For the rocket docket to work, the defendant must waive their right to the grand jury hearing the case and issuing an indictment, Engel said. She would then issue an information, which is a charging document from prosecutors, which would specify the charges and the offer.

The circuit judge can still decide whether or not to accept the plea, Engel said.

As part of the agreement, Engel oversees the preliminary hearing docket in district court on Wednesdays and decides which cases to recommend for the rocket docket, Elkins said.

The court clerks then prepare the docket on the spot for circuit court on Thursday to resolve the cases.

Not every felony case, such as murder, is a candidate for the rocket docket, Engel said.

Elkins and Engel said it has taken everyone within the justice system to agree for the program to work, including the defense attorneys, Clark District Judge Cole Adams Maier, circuit judges Jean Chenault Logue and Brandy Oliver Brown, the defense attorneys and Clark Circuit Clerk Martha Miller’s staff.

“It’s valuable to everyone, I think, for justice to move swiftly,” Engel said. “A lot of these defendants are (addicted to drugs). We’re trying to give them an opportunity for treatment sooner rather than later.”

“If someone can commit a class D (felony) on Tuesday, Heidi in district court could make them an offer on Wednesday and then they can enter a guilty plea in circuit court”  on Thursday, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Charles Johnson said. “It really gets them through the system and gets them help.

“Most of these are people ready to face the music and need a creative solution.”

Elkins said 10 felony cases were resolved in February alone through the rocket docket. If that number holds steady, more than half of the county’s 220 felony cases in Clark Circuit Court could be resolved without going through the grand jury.

Elkins estimates the program has already saved Clark County more than $27,000 in incarceration expenses in February alone, based on an average 80-day jail stay prior to indictment at the cost of $34 a day.

“So far, it’s working well,” Engel said. “It’s a whole package deal.”