- Associated Press - Friday, April 7, 2017

MEDFORD, Ore. (AP) - A new court program in southern Oregon seeks to free up jail space by scheduling mandatory hearings aimed at resolving Measure 11 cases faster, sending most of those inmates on to state prison to serve their time.

Presiding Jackson County Circuit Judge Timothy Gerking said he hopes that mandatory settlement conferences starting this month will coax prosecutors to give their “last, best” plea offers within four months, rather than the year or more it typically takes for Measure 11 cases to go to trial.

“It actually should facilitate (prosecutors’) best and last settlement offer to the defendant, rather than wait,” Gerking said. “He probably won’t get a better settlement offer before trial.”

“It’s like, fish or cut bait.”

Cases involving Measure 11 charges, serious crimes that carry mandatory minimum prison sentences upon conviction, typically take more than a year from initial arraignment to trial, according to Gerking. They also take the “lion’s share” of jail beds - about a third of the 230 beds at the Jackson County Jail.

Of the 222 inmates lodged overnight March 21, about 80 were there because they were awaiting trial on Measure 11 cases, according to Gerking. Only three inmates were serving a court-imposed jail sentence and two inmates were lodged on new charges.

Inmates sentenced to more than a year in custody are sent to state prison; those with less than a year generally serve their time in the county jail.

To help alleviate the space crunch, Gerking wants to schedule mandatory hearings about four months after a defendant’s initial arraignment, the court hearing when a defendant first appears on the charges.

Notices about the new program are going out to defense lawyers now, according to Gerking, and hearings will be scheduled to start later this month on Thursday afternoons. Murder cases will be kept separate; cases impacted by the mandatory settlement conferences will include assault, sexual assault and armed robbery.

In devising the new approach, Gerking sought input from District Attorney Beth Heckert, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office and Doug Engle with Southern Oregon Public Defenders.

Four months into a case, prosecutors typically have talked to the victim twice and have heard what the victim would like from the case, Heckert said. It’s typically enough time for “straightforward” cases such as robberies that draw from eyewitness accounts and surveillance footage.

However, cases that involve mental health evaluations or forensic evidence may need more time. Heckert said there’s flexibility in scheduling the mandatory hearings.

She hopes settlement conferences will coax defendants into accepting plea offers earlier.

“A lot of times everyone’s so busy they’re triggered by an event,” Heckert said, referring to looming trials and similar court dates. “The court’s idea is that now this is an event.”

When asked whether the hearings would change how prosecutors prioritize their cases, Heckert said Measure 11 cases are “already a priority.” She said she didn’t anticipate any drastic changes in plea offers.

The vast majority of Measure 11 cases still will go to trial, according to Gerking and Heckert. However, closing a small fraction can provide the court and prosecutors needed flexibility.

“Even saving five beds is helpful,” Heckert said.

Local defense attorney Garren Pedemonte said the new procedure is a good idea, not only because cases could be resolved more quickly, but because facts and details will be presented to a judge earlier.

He expects judges will put more pressure on the attorneys involved to resolve cases.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Pedemonte said.

The quickest Measure 11 cases can take three months to resolve. More complicated cases - such as difficult sex cases involving multiple victims, experts and Oregon Department of Human Services records - can take up to two years, he said.

Pedemonte said settlement conferences may not move those complicated cases along more quickly because they involve so much work. Just getting records can take months.

As for whether earlier plea agreements could ease jail overcrowding, Pedemonte is doubtful.

He said police will always arrest as many people as they can and will always fill the jail.

In 2016, the first full year that jail capacity dropped by 62 beds, Circuit Court felony case filings increased 24 percent and misdemeanor case filings increased 7 percent.

Sheriff Nathan Sickler said the jail basement level is on track to reopen by April 24, which will restore those 62 beds.

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Information from: Mail Tribune, https://www.mailtribune.com/

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