In Shawnee County District Court, located in Topeka, Kansas, sitting judges are mediating “serious” criminal cases. According to The Topeka Capital-Journal, this mediation program is a growing trend that is avoiding “legal warfare,” alleviating the need for victim and witness testimony, and sparing court, law enforcement and attorney resources. The February 2, 2014 article, titled “Judges acting as mediators in serious criminal cases more often,” quotes one judge as saying that the goal is “to bring as much justice as you can to as many people as you can.”
This mediation program started in April 2013, after a “full house” of Shawnee County judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys attended a course on mediating criminal cases taught by their counterparts from a neighboring county. Mediation occurs only when the prosecutor and defense attorney agree they want a judge to mediate the case. The case then proceeds under the following conditions:
- The judge mediator has to be neutral and “not have a dog in the fight.”
- The judge assigned to handle a criminal case can’t be the judge mediating that case.
- The prosecutor and defense attorney can’t talk to the assigned judge about the strengths and weaknesses of their case . . . . But it is fair for the attorneys to talk to another judge assigned to mediate the case.
- Each side can lay out the strengths and weaknesses of his or her case, and the mediating judge can give feedback to each side.
- At the same time, the mediator judge doesn’t disclose what the prosecutor or defense attorney has told the judge.
Judicial mediation in Shawnee County is touted as “a rare opportunity for [criminal defendants] to talk to a judge, to tell the judge what they think their story is.” After mediation, defendants can make a plea or go on to trial. Of the seven cases that the court mediated since April, it is reported that all seven resulted in pleas in four hours or less, saving the court seven trials, each of which could have lasted days or even weeks.
Reform is clearly needed in criminal matters. If indeed this mediation program furthers actual justice in an efficient and victim friendly way, this program appears to be a step in the right direction.