ATLANTA – A deluge of drug cases has jammed up state crime labs, contributing to a bulging backlog that is delaying cases and leaving agencies waiting more than a year for some lab reports.
For Valdosta Police Chief Brian Childress, this surge in casework sent to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Division of Forensic Sciences is affirmation that local officials made the right call when they decided to open their own lab years ago.
“I don’t think we’re in a world anymore where you can rely solely on the state crime labs. You just can’t,” Childress said. “City and county law enforcement need to start taking some of that pressure off these labs.”
But right now, Childress is part of a small club in Georgia.
Valdosta, a community of about 56,000 people, is home to the only locally operated lab in the state that is currently accredited with the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors Laboratory Accreditation Bureau.
Warner Robins Forensic Laboratory was another, until losing its sole full-time chemist caused the lab to voluntarily withdraw its accreditation – an illustration of the challenges these small-scale labs face.
The middle Georgia lab, which now has two chemists on staff, is working to regain the accreditation needed to resume blood alcohol analysis. In the meantime, its lab still does other types of testing, such as fingerprint and footwear examination.
This means these two labs are handling in-house much of what other local law enforcement agencies send off to the state labs, which were contending with a nearly 33,000-case backlog as of last month. Another 61,932 caseshad not yet been assigned. A case is considered backlogged after 30 days.
“When you have labs that are busy — and the state stays busy because, I’m sorry, there’s a lot of crime — it is a godsend to have a crime lab down here,” said Lake Park Police Chief James Breletic, whose department uses the Valdosta lab.
But this extra service comes at a cost, which has made starting a lab a tough sell for many local officials in Georgia — especially when they can spare the expense and send cases to the state labs for no cost.
The Valdosta-Lowndes Regional Crime Lab started with simple tasks in the late 1990s: fingerprint analysis and marijuana identification.
Over the years, more capabilities, such as firearms analysis, were added.
If the lab becomes accredited for blood alcohol testing this fall, it will offer many of the services found at full-scale labs. There’s no immediate plan to add DNA analysis, which is costliest, although Childress says the city is not ruling anything out.
Already, the city spends about $1.2 million annually on the lab, which has a dozen employees and sits in a partially used 30,000-square-foot building in downtown Valdosta.
“You don’t put a price tag on evidence analysis,” Childress said. “That is holy ground.”
A handful of agencies, such as the Lake Park Police Department, pay to use the regional lab. For Lake Park, the cost is $5,000, which is paid for through a $10 crime lab fee tacked onto citations.
The Quitman Police Department and Valdosta State University police force also chip in $5,000 and $10,000, respectively.
Childress argues that a quicker turnaround keeps the wheels of justice moving for everyone, which also shortens the time defendants spend in the city jail. That saves the city money, which helps offset the cost of running the lab, he said. That’s why Childress argues that focusing on the cost to open a lab is short sighted.
The average turnaround time is 21 days for most evidence and up to 60 days for ballistics. Evidence can be processed more quickly when needed. As an example, Childress cited a 2013 fatal shooting that investigators were able to quickly solve because the lab rushed to process evidence.
But the lab was recently dealt a blow when the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office – which helped launch the facility many years ago – decided last year to stop sending its casework to the local lab. The county had been paying $250,000 to the city the last couple years.
Sheriff Ashley Paulk, who was sheriff when the county first partnered with the city on the lab, said he took a fresh look at the program when he was elected back into office two years ago.
Paulk said that while he has no complaints about the lab’s performance, he concluded that the expanded lab was just no longer a good deal for taxpayers.
“Back when we did it, it was a great idea, but if you can’t cost justify something, I can’t do it as a taxpayer, a businessman and a sheriff,” Paulk said.
“It’s just an economic decision. I can’t spend $250,000 of taxpayer money that I don’t need to,” he said.
Paulk said he isn’t worried about the state’s backlog affecting his department’s cases. A good chunk of the cases involve marijuana, which his office handles internally. For other casework, he said he can turn to different agencies, such as U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for ballistics and the Thomas County Sheriff’s Office for fingerprint analysis.
With these budget-friendly options available, Paulk said he just couldn’t stomach the expense of the local lab.
Childress said the lab will continue on without the county and is talking to other agencies that are interested in using with the facility, although he says the lab’s future does not depend on such partnerships.
Capt. John Lanneau, who is the director of the lab in Warner Robins, which is home to 75,000 people, said he thinks other local agencies in Georgia will eventually follow suit and open their own lab, even if just on a small scale.
Lanneau said he believes his department and Valdosta are helping to shape a template for them to use should they go that route.
“I get asked the question, ‘Why would you want to have a lab?’ he said. “Well, we want to provide a service for the community and we want to be able to provide answers as quickly as is reasonable and as accurately as possible.
“And there’s a cost to being able to do that,” he said.
The Valdosta police chief said he sees an opportunity for other agencies to create their own “mini lab” that offers some of the lower level analysis.
He argues that more locally operated crime labs can help relieve pressure on the overburdened state crime labs, which received nearly 80,000 requests from agencies last year. That doesn’t include the more than 10,000 samples received for the convicted offender database.
“They’re quality people,” Childress said of the state crime lab staff. “But they’re overwhelmed, and it’s not going to get any better. We can pretend it is, but it’s not.”
But even opening a small lab can prove cost-prohibitive, said Jean Stover, executive director of theAmerican Society of Crime Laboratory Directors, which is not the accrediting organization.
“You can do an abbreviated version, but there’s still money involved and you still need a dedicated space for this,” Stover said. “You still have to have the ventilation. You still need to buy the supplies. You still have to have trained individuals.”
The drug cases are also not as simple as they once were, when the drugs of choice were cocaine, marijuana or – as Stover put it – “basic heroin.” Complicating testing today are ever-evolving synthetic opioids – including a new version that caused a mass overdose in middle Georgia last year that state scientists identified – and heroin laced with substances like fentanyl.
It’s also more common today for people to have multiple substances in their system, adding further complexities for chemists.
Peter Skandalakis, executive director of Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, said more local crime labs would be a benefit – if they can meet the rigorous standards required for accreditation.
“It is a high bar and it ought to be a high bar,” he said, referring to accreditation. “Because anytime you’re talking about crime lab testing, obviously you’re talking about the potential to take somebody’s freedom away and the potential to exonerate someone.”
Even metro Atlanta areas that perform their own autopsies still send evidence to the state crime labs. The GBI’s labs, which will receive $38.7 million in state funding this year, perform autopsies and crime analysis at no cost to jurisdictions.
In addition to the main crime lab in Decatur, the state has six regional labs that focus on different types of examination. For example, the labs in Moultrie and Savannah both provide drug identification and forensic biology testing, but Moultrie also examines trace evidence, such as paint and gunshot residue, while the coastal lab does autopsies and ballistics.
All told, the crime lab system has 314 employees, including 163 scientists, operating in nearly 286,000 square feet of total lab space.
“Periodically, local law enforcement agencies will come to meet with us who are interested in setting up their own laboratory,” said Vernon Keenan, who is the director of the GBI. “And when they see the costs that’s associated with doing that, it does not go anywhere.”
Drug cases make up about half of the backlog, as well as about half of the unassigned cases. The backlogs are most severe with firearms testing. Other states have reported similar backlogs.
Keenan said the bureau will go to the governor and state lawmakers with a funding request for additional staff to handle the growing number of cases. An assessment of the state crime labs’ staffing needs is currently underway.
For Southern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Brad Shealy, the backlog is reminiscent of a crisis that faced the state in the 1990s, when some prosecutors had to drop charges because of delays at the state labs. Skandalakis said he is hearing from other district attorneys that the backlog is starting to cause issues.
Shealy, whose circuit includes Valdosta as well as other jurisdictions that do not use the local lab, said he has more than 100 cases awaiting state lab reports. He said the city crime lab is typically faster than the state crime lab.
“Everybody’s trying to expedite them, and it’s just not going to happen,” Shealy said, referring to cases sent to the state labs. “There’s just too many cases for too few workers.”
Jill Nolin covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.