Atop Wade White's wish list this Christmas has been a second judge for an overburdened circuit court docket in order to help ease burgeoning jail costs to taxpapers. Late last week, that help came gift-wrapped from Frankfort.
In a meeting Thursday with representatives from Kentucky's Administrative Office of the Courts, Lyon County's judge-executive and other officials from the 56th Judicial Circuit learned they have been granted at least some temporary relief to speed cases through the courts. James. R. Redd III has been assigned as a special circuit judge for Lyon, Caldwell, Livingston and Trigg counties.
"This is a heck of a good start," White said. "We cannot ask for a better judge."
Redd has served as a district-level judge for Lyon, Caldwell, Livingston and Trigg counties since January 2006. In addition to his district court duties, Redd will have jurisdiction beginning Jan. 1 over all matters that may come before the circuit court, including criminal, civil and family cases.
Chief Justice John D. Minton signed the order granting help for 56th Judicial Circuit Judge C.A. Woodall III. In 2018, Woodall was the state's sixth busiest of 95 circuit judges, presiding over 1,291 new cases. The average caseload per judge was 967.
"The initial purpose is to help move criminal cases to reduce local jail populations by handling probation revocation hearings on designated days," Woodall wrote in a memo discussing Redd's assignment.
The average time between the filing and closing date of criminal cases in Lyon County in 2018 was almost eight and a half months. With no jail of its own, each month a Lyon County offender spends in jail costs taxpayers about $1,000 to house elsewhere. With increased criminal charges for drug and other activity along the interstates and recreation areas, local jail costs have risen more than eightfold since 2013.
White said building a jail would costs taxpayers even more each year.
Redd will be used as needed, spending a half-day each month in each of the four counties in the circuit. He will be in Lyon County on the fourth Wednesday monthly. District court matters, however, will remain a top priority for both Redd and his fellow 56th Judicial Circuit judge, Natalie White.
"This is on a trial basis, and we will learn as we go along how best to take advantage of the opportunity," Woodall continued.
Wade White said he is not sure how long the temporary fix will last, but he and fellow judge-executives in the three other counties of the judicial circuit will continue to push for a permanent family court judge. The 56th Judicial Circuit is one of only four four-county circuits of the state' 57 total circuits with no family court judge. Family court cases accounted for nearly 30% of the almost 1,300 cases last year in the local circuit.
The Kentucky General Assembly would have to create and fund any new judicial position. That could come in next year's biennial budget session, but White believes it more likely to come in 2022. Until then, having a judge temporarily assigned to the circuit should make for a notable decrease in jail costs. And there are other efforts the county will continue to look at to reduce corrections expenses.
"We're looking at every little step we can do to chip away at this massive jail bill we have," White said.
Even before the assignment of the special judge, White had good news to share with taxpayers. At last Thursday's meeting of Lyon Fiscal Court, he said the projected jail costs for the year could come in at more than $100,000 less than anticipated just a few months ago.
In June, magistrates set the jail budget at $315,000, up $75,000 over the previous fiscal year. But just a couple of months into the new spending plan that started in July, projection swelled to around $515,000, leading to a layoff of several county employees. On Thursday, White said it appears an array of efforts to cut costs is working, with the estimate now down to about $400,000 through June 2020.
"Everybody is doing their best to keep things as low as possible," an optimistic but cautious White said. "We may end up somewhere around $350,000 to $400,000, but there's no way to know."