ATLANTA — The Georgia Bureau of Investigation director vowed to lawmakers on Wednesday to address the extreme backlog in the state's crime lab.
As of Jan. 1, the crime lab operated by the GBI were backlogged with 44,020 cases, up from 37,000 cases in February of 2019.
While the governor’s proposed budget funnels dollars toward the Anti-Gang Task Force and reduces dollars for crime lab staff, Director Vic Reynolds told lawmakers during budget hearings that addressing the backlog is his top priority.
“We did a lot of work in 2019 on the issue of gangs and we have more work to do there,” Reynolds said, “but there is no issue to me any more important today than addressing the issues of this crime lab ... I give you my word I will do the very best I can to make sure those issues are looked at from top to bottom.”
Of the backlogged cases, 77% require forensic biology, including processes such as DNA testing, and chemistry (drug identification).
House Bill 470 that passed during last year's session and became effective in April of 2019 sent for the first time DNA collection and analysis for first offenders to the GBI. The change added about 8,000 cases to the GBI's list, Reynolds said.
Of the backlogged cases, 46% range from 31 to 180 days old, the ideal shelf life of a case. A total of 70% fall under a two-year shelf life. But out of the remaining cases, 13% are between three to six years old.
“I will tell you as a former prosecutor, you shouldn’t have a case that is that old,” Reynolds said, “with the exception of perhaps a death penalty case.”
The GBI has to “think outside of the box” to address the backlog, Reynolds told the lawmakers. He has tasked his new lab director to start contacting agencies about the old cases to see where the cases have gone. But outsourcing cases, he said, will be the greatest tool to reducing the backlog.
The GBI plans on using grant and federal dollars to pay for the outsourcing of cases.
The state grant program allotted $350,000 to the GBI that should eliminate 1,900 to 2,000 cases, Reynolds said. A federal DNA backlog reduction grant of more than $1 million should knock off another 1,400.
Lawmakers expressed concern over the sexual assault kits pending that the lawmakers have tried to address with past legislation.
House Bill 282 mandated set DNA evidence of rape and similar crimes be held up to 50 years — previous law allowed them to be disposed of after 10 years.
As of this week, Reynolds said, 768 sexual assault kits are pending in the crime lab, about three-and-a-half month’s worth with an average of 200 cases coming in per month.
Reductions in the governor’s budget proposal eliminate three vacant scientist positions and two vacant lab technician positions in fiscal year 2020, and eliminate nine vacant scientist positions and two vacant lab positions and freeze two additional scientist positions in fiscal year 2021.
“Our job is to make sure that in the end that justice is done,” Reynolds said, “and certainly a big part of that is having a crime lab that is responsive, that handles cases in a timely fashion.”
Riley Bunch covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites.