According to information provided by the Georgia Department of Forensic Science (DOFS) for fiscal year 2002, the laboratory received and processed about 10,000 service requests per month. In October of 1999 the laboratory had an all time high of 35,857 backlogged cases.
Even though the turn around time has been reduced somewhat and the laboratory has expanded its services in recent years, the law enforcement community is still submitting increasing numbers of evidence due to the steadily growing drug problem, according to DOFS reports.
Superior Court Judge Richard Sutton said that the number of methamphetamine related cases or crimes has doubled in Polk County in years 2000-2004, while cocaine and marijuana related crime has dropped by more than half.
A current total of backlogged cases could not be attained as of press time Monday morning.
The court system is backlogged and unable to process and prosecute cases in a timely manner here, according to Sutton, because the Georgia State Crime Lab’s Department of Forensic Science being overwhelmed with drug evidence needing to be processed and the lack of personnel to do it.
Dan Kirk, Deputy Director of the Georgia Crime Lab, confirmed the problem and said that Gov. Sonny Perdue has made allowances in the state budget for 20 more scientists to be hired by the year 2006 to provide more staff in the state crime labs.
Out of the nine categories that evidence is submitted into at the crime lab, the chemistry department has the most submissions according to their records. This department handles drug-related evidence. It was leading the other categories by over 12,000 cases in 2002.
The primary function of the chemistry section is to analyze and identify chemical compounds and determine if possession of these compounds is in violation of federal and/or state statutes.
Drug identification is performed at the headquarters laboratory and in each of the laboratories throughout the state.
The Crime Lab’s headquarters is in Decatur with regional laboratories in Augusta, Columbus, Macon, Moultrie,
Savannah and Summerville.
Laboratory scientists and technicians in specialized disciplines collect, analyze and interpret all aspects of physical evidence for officers, investigators and District Attorneys in order for them to establish a case against the perpetrator.
Polk County District Attorney Don Wilson agrees that the backlog is having a negative effect on local prosecution. His office has some cases from 2003 waiting on test results from the state crime lab. He said that even when a criminal violates their probation with a drug-related crime, “We can’t even revoke their probation,” until evidence is back from the crime lab that is taking up to a year and sometimes longer. He said the problems are “terribly frustrating.”
“It has become an economic issue,” Wilson said. The courts know it’s going to take probably a year to get evidence back so the defense attorney petitions the court and bond is set and the perpetrator goes back out on the streets, he said. “The county doesn’t want to house them for a year,” Wilson explained.
“We [the DAs office] object to them being let out on bond,” but Wilson said, “I empathize with them [the county].”
The problems all lead back to the backlog with the State Crime Lab.
He went on to say also that many of the individuals incarcerated are in poor health partly due to the drug use and require medical assistance while in jail that the county also has to pay for.
Sutton said that 80 percent of the cases now in Superior Court are either drug or alcohol related. “If you want changes,” he said, “then talk to your representative.”
Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vernon Keenan reported on the budget for his department at the Board of Public Safety meeting held Feb. 9, 2005. According to the minutes from that meeting he said, “Gov. Perdue has recommended $3 million in the supplemental budget to outsource cases that are in the backlog of the State Crime Laboratory.”
Keenan met with Perdue to design a plan on how to eliminate the backlog. Keenan explained that the first step is to outsource, which is not unique to other states, but it is to Georgia.
The process will be to designate certain categories of cases that will be outsourced to private labs making sure these labs meet the GBI’s standards.
The type of cases that the agency will initially outsource will be the cases that are less likely to require court testimony according to information from the February meeting.
Concerns from prosecutors of having expert witnesses testify in certain cases are being addressed; out of the funding for outsourcing, an amount is being appropriated to cover the costs of the expert witnesses who are required to testify.
Keenan also reported that Governor Perdue has recommended $1.4 million in the 2006 Fiscal Year budget, to hire the 20 additional scientists.
Wilson said that he is not sure that outsourcing the evidence to other labs is the right decision because testimony is required many times by the scientists or doctor. Additional labs used may be out of state and when testimony is needed the county has to pay for the individual’s travel, hotel and car to be present in court for testifying.
Wilson has a situation like that right now, he said.