FRANKFORT, Ky., - For the first time in Clay County, judges used mediation to successfully settle 18 out of 19 felony cases Friday. The mediation was coordinated through an Administrative Office of the Courts program designed to reduce court caseloads.
Senior Judges Charles W. Boteler Jr., Stephen A. Hayden and Steve K. Mershon, who are trained mediators, worked to resolve the cases on behalf of Circuit Judge Oscar Gayle House, who serves Clay, Jackson and Leslie counties. Senior judges are retired judges who receive an enhanced retirement benefit for filling in when a sitting judge dies or retires and in circumstances that lead to unusually congested dockets.
The judges, working separately, addressed 19 cases on the Clay County docket, settling all but one of them. Defendants in the cases were from Clay, Jackson and Leslie counties and were accused of offenses including burglary, drug trafficking, theft, assault, fleeing and evading law enforcement, and manufacturing methamphetamine. The defendant and prosecution in each case volunteered to participate in mediation.
Of the cases settled, all 18 defendants pleaded guilty, some to charges that prosecutors agreed to amend from felonies to misdemeanors. Other defendants agreed to terms to settle their cases, such as paying restitution or completing a Drug Court program. Prosecutors dismissed charges in some cases so defendants would plead guilty to other crimes with which they were charged. At least one defendant pleaded guilty to all charges. In the one unsettled case, which involved theft by unlawful taking of more than $300, the parties did not reach an agreement.
Following mediation, the parties went before Judge House, who ruled in the cases based on the agreements reached in mediation. The judge, who has the authority to accept or refuse resolutions agreed upon in mediation, accepted all of the settlements.
Judge House deemed the mediations successful, saying they saved time and money and satisfied everyone involved.
"The defendants loved it. People actually listened to them. They said that people would listen to them in court too, but it would be a jury that might sentence them to 50 years," he said. "The Commonwealth loved it too. We very seldom leave court with people who are happy, but we did. It was phenomenal."
Judge House contacted the AOC's Division of Mediation about setting up mediation for felony cases in his circuit in order to conclude some of the more than 400 cases on the burgeoning dockets in Clay, Jackson and Leslie counties and possibly reduce populations in area jails, which are bursting at the seams, he said.
The cases the judges settled Friday would have taken six to eight weeks of work by the court, deputy clerks and others had they been handled
traditionally, Judge House said.
"Really, it boggles my mind. I'm thrilled to death," Judge House said. "It was very productive and very successful."
Mediation is an informal process in which a neutral third party facilitates the resolution of a dispute between two or more parties and is commonly used to resolve civil cases. The AOC also has the CAMP, or Court Annexed Mediation Program, in nine counties for mediating misdemeanors and some family law cases. However, prior to Clay County, judges in only two other Kentucky circuits previously used mediation to address felony cases: Chief Circuit Judge Anthony W. Frohlich, who serves Boone and Gallatin counties and was the first in Kentucky to use mediation as a method for settling felonies, and Chief Circuit Judge Marc I. Rosen, who serves Boyd County.
The mediation process is designed to help disputing parties reach an agreement on all or part of the issues in dispute. Decision-making authority remains with the parties, not the mediator. The mediator assists the parties in identifying issues, fostering joint problem solving and exploring settlement alternatives. In criminal mediation, the mediator, defendant, prosecutor, defense attorney and sometimes the crime victim are present.
The judges who conducted mediations in Clay County mediated Thursday in Boyd County, with the addition of Chief Senior Judge William J. Wehr. Judge Wehr helped the AOC's Division of Mediation coordinate the effort to mediate felony cases in both counties and helped train the judges.
The mediation in Boyd County also went well, with the judges settling eight of the 12 cases on the docket.
Judge Hayden said mediation saves money by resolving cases that could otherwise go on for days in court. The method works, in many cases, because - as Judge House pointed out - it gives people a chance to have their say, he said.
"Sometimes it's just giving people the opportunity to voice their concerns," Judge Hayden said. "A lot of times, people feel like they are not being heard. But in mediation, they feel like, 'Hey, I'm being listened to.' "
Judge Mershon agreed, adding that both sides in a felony case may prefer mediation with a senior judge to a trial because they feel there is a knowledgeable, retired judge with ostensible authority weighing in on their case.
Carol Paisley, manager of the AOC's Division of Mediation, said the division plans to continue working with judges to get felony cases handled through mediation rather than in full court when possible.
"We have a process that works and we have mediators available," said Paisley, who worked with Judge Wehr to coordinate the mediations in Clay and Boyd counties. "Now it's just a matter of identifying the next areas to use this program, which likely will be jurisdictions with heavy caseloads and an overcrowded jail nearby. Overcrowded jails pass on significant costs to the counties and this is one tool to help reduce those costs."