WACO (September 25, 2013)--After all five of McLennan County’s district judges and both county court-at-law judges met at noon Wednesday in Waco to discuss a new plan to move felony cases through the court system faster, they arrived at consensus to begin implementing a "Rocket Docket" system to do just that.
"It's going to happen," 54th District Judge Matt Johnson said after the meeting.
"I think it's a plan that had favorable reception from all the judges," Johnson said.
In a nutshell the plan calls for all of the courts in McLennan County to begin to deal with felony cases on at least a limited basis, Johnson said.
While Johnson could not say when the plan might be up and running, he did say the judges are set to meet again next week to begin to iron out any issues that might arise and the "rocket docket" could be in place by the first of the year.
Johnson said he and 19th District Judge Ralph Strother are meeting soon to begin to lay out the cases they have on their dockets that are more than 300 days old and let other judges pick from the list the cases they would like to hear.
The plan would alleviate defendants "riding the docket," Johnson said, meaning some cases get continually reset while others take precedent, but that means some cases remain on the docket for months and those defendants remain in jail awaiting trial.
At any given time there could be four or five courts that could on a regular basis be used to move felony cases along in the system, especially targeting defendants who have been in jail for more than 300 days, Johnson said.
Currently only two of the five district courts in McLennan County handle felony criminal cases while the other three have traditionally heard only civil or juvenile matters.
County Courts-at-Law 1 and 2 handle only misdemeanor cases and have no jurisdiction in felony matters, but the proposal would elevate those misdemeanor courts to the felony level.
Johnson said the plan would help alleviate the felony case backlog, drive cases more quickly through the courts and thus reduce jail overcrowding.
The effort is to reduce the cost of housing defendants in jail who are waiting on court dates and thus reduce the budget impact, Johnson said.
The 19th and 54th District Courts currently average hearing about 75 felony trials a year, Strother said.
If just the three other district courts began hearing one felony trial each per-month, that would add 36 more trial dates to the total number, or almost half-again more cases.
But even if the courts didn't hear that many trials, using them to hear plea dockets in some cases would accelerate the rate at which felonies are disposed of, Johnson said.
Johnson said the plan is not without issues but he said none of them seem insurmountable.
"We'd have to get some other people on board," Johnson said.
"The (district attorney) says he's all for it but we'd have to talk with the district clerk and the sheriff," Johnson said.
One of the county court-at-law courtrooms has space for only six jurors and felony cases constitutionally require a jury panel of 12.
The district clerk would have to have extra notice to arrange for a larger jury pool call in order to have enough potential jurors for that many trials, Johnson said.
When the bumps are smoothed out, the pace of cases moving through the McLennan County courts would be vastly accelerated, Strother said.