Obstruction of Justice: The State Crime Lab in Crisis

September 16th, 1998 by Leave a Comment

By Joe D. Whitley, Daniel J. Adamson

In today’s atmosphere of political pragmatism and fiscal responsibility, few people see government as a cure-all for society’s ills; instead, our elected officials increasingly look for solutions in partnerships with the private sector. One such private-sector partnership should be considered as a means to improve the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s (GBI) State Crime Lab.

Founded nearly forty years ago as the second statewide forensics facility in the nation, our crime lab was once a leader in the field. Today, however, it is a prime example of a facility in need of massive reform. Georgia’s crime lab is plagued by neglect, an ever-increasing caseload, and problems resulting from changes in the nature and investigation of crimes. Of the 32 states currently involved in a national coalition to promote reform in forensic sciences, Georgia handles not only the highest number of total cases, but also burdens each State Crime Lab employee with nearly twice the average caseload. Illinois, by comparison, handles fewer cases on a budget three times the size of Georgia’s, and Alabama devotes more funding to a crime lab with half Georgia’s number of cases. In a direct statistical comparison with each state in the coalition, Georgia would come out dead last in funding per cases processed.

The explanation for this alarming fact lies partly in an astounding four-fold jump in service requests since 1974. Last year alone the lab completed nearly 120,000 requests in areas such as DNA testing, fingerprinting, drug identification, and pathology. This jump in services results partly from an overall rise in crime rates (36 percent over that time), but also from the influence of highly televised cases involving DNA testing and other sophisticated techniques. No longer is the testimony of witnesses and police officers enough to secure a conviction; juries have come to expect scientific evidence.

So it should come as no surprise that the Crime Lab Commission, composed of public and private representatives from across Georgia, estimates it will take $50 million to meet the demands of the criminal justice system in 1998 and beyond. These dollars would create 181 new positions, fund better training, equipment, and more supplies, and support some $31 million in capital improvements. Given the magnitude of the problem, this expenditure is wholly justified. As it stands, more than one quarter of all service requests at the lab go unanswered for lack of resources. These unanswered requests, alongside delayed requests, are serious obstacles to due process, particularly in critical cases such as drug trials and homicides. Moreover, the lengthy pretrial detentions that result (which mirror lengthy opportunities to remain free on bail) are not only a humanitarian concern. According to one recent report, they cost the state an estimated $4 million a year in jail beds alone—a figure that also demonstrates a long-term financial incentive for reform. If this figure seems high, consider the fact that a full 30 percent of the county jail population statewide is presently being held pending the completion of drug testing.

The present atmosphere of fiscal restraint will make it difficult for the state legislature to fund the full crime lab revitalization, and it may become necessary to couple government funding with aggressive private-sector partnerships and initiatives. Businesses, for example, might be invited to endow permanent positions at the crime lab, much like the faculty endowments of many universities. Companies in the scientific and technology industry, along with universities, should be encouraged to share their expertise by loaning professionals to the crime lab on a regular basis. Additionally, businesses and universities might supply scholarships to students in associated areas of study on the condition that they work in the crime lab after graduation. Insurance companies that are responsible for a significant number of crime lab requests might also be encouraged to help revive the lab system through financial grants.

Certainly these are only a few of the possibilities for private-sector involvement in making Georgia’s State Crime Lab a state-of-the-art facility. To this end, Georgia’s next batch of political leaders, those we elect (or re-elect) this fall, should think “outside the box” when it comes to fixing Georgia’s lab. We can’t afford to wait much longer.

Joe Whitley is an attorney at the law firm of Alston & Bird, LLP based in Atlanta, Georgia. Mr. Whitley is the former United States Attorney for the Northern and Middle Districts of Georgia. He also served as Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the United States Department of Justice in the Reagan administration, and as Acting Associate Attorney General during the Bush administration. Daniel Adamson is a Yale graduate, and is currently studying political theory at Oxford University on a Marshall Scholarship. Mr. Adamson has worked for the Carter Center for International Peace and for pro-Democracy organizations in Hong Kong and China.

The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an nonprofit, nonpartisan research and education organization dedicated to keeping all Georgians informed about their government. It provides practical, unbiased information and ideas on key public policy issues to members, citizens, elected officials and the media to help them make informed decisions that affect the future of Georgia. The Foundation believes in and actively supports private enterprise, limited government, individual responsibility and is committed to an accurate presentation of the truth in all that it does.

Nothing written here is to be construed as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature. ã Georgia Public Policy Foundation (September 16, 1998) Permission is hereby given to reprint this article, with appropriate credit given.

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