- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 13, 2015

LEWISTON, Idaho (AP) - Senior Judge Carl B. Kerrick knows he won’t be walking the dog, tending the garden or cutting the grass Monday afternoons.

Instead, Kerrick will be in Lewiston’s Magistrate Court for an hour or two, thanks to a state initiative to streamline the criminal justice system and make it more user-friendly.

The retired District Court judge presides over preliminary conferences, a newly added proceeding that brings together defense attorneys with new clients, allows informal conferring with the judge and doesn’t require witnesses to be present.

The conferences are set two days ahead of a preliminary hearing, giving attorneys on both sides a small window to prepare.

“They don’t feel so under the gun to be in there and ready to roll,” Kerrick said.

In addition, defendants in a pretrial conference may tell the judge how they plan to plead, thereby bypassing the traditional preliminary hearing and kicking their case immediately to the District Court level for a plea hearing. The move is shortening the length of time some cases spend in the court system by several weeks or more.

Preliminary hearings, in which prosecutors argue their case before a magistrate who decides if probable cause is sufficient to hold the defendant over to District Court, are scheduled for Wednesday afternoons in Lewiston’s Courtroom No. 3.

In the past, the small courtroom on the second floor of the Lewiston courthouse was chock full Wednesday afternoons, as attorneys and prosecutors, witnesses and defendants - and often their families - waited shoulder-to-shoulder on the gallery benches, and stood in the back of the small courtroom, or in the hallway outside, as judges ticked through the calendar that could include two dozen cases. The majority of the cases were not ready to be heard, and were delayed for another time. That meant witnesses, people who took time off from work, traveled to appear in court, or police officers and sheriff’s deputies in uniform who were sometimes paid overtime to attend, had to be re-subpoenaed to appear again, at another time.

“A defendant might waive the hearing, or it has to be continued, and we don’t know until minutes before (the hearing),” said Nez Perce County Deputy Prosecutor Justin Coleman. “We were getting a lot of voiced frustration. This will alleviate that.”

In an effort to better manage the flow of proceedings, the state enlisted each district to seek productive solutions to what may be perceived as snags in the criminal justice system.

“The public defenders, prosecutors, clerks all met and went through ways to make the criminal system more efficient,” said Judge Jay P. Gaskill, the 2nd Judicial District’s administrative judge. Finding ways to prevent witnesses from attending unproductive preliminary hearings was a prevailing concern, he said.

It may be too early to tell how well the adopted change will work, said public defender Richard M. Cuddihy. He met clients at Monday’s preliminary conference and let Kerrick - and prosecutors - know how he planned to proceed two days later.

“I think the idea is good,” Cuddihy said. “We don’t have witnesses for 20 prelims coming to court to find out which of the five are going to go forward. I think it will help that problem.”

Of 15 cases set for preliminary conference this week, three are set to move forward with preliminary hearings today.

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Information from: Lewiston Tribune, https://www.lmtribune.com

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