Atlanta, Ga. (WTOC) - This week, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation opened a brand new crime lab in Pooler.
The facility allows the agency to expand what it does in the lab for law enforcement agencies in the coastal region. In turn, that means getting evidence for cases in and out much more quickly, but all is not perfect in the GBI crime labs around the state.
There are more than 36,000 items considered backlogged in state crime labs. That is evidence that is in the lab 30 days without being tested. The good news is - backlog decreased by almost 200 items in the last month.
More than 19,000 drug items need to be tested in Georgia. They make up more than half of the backlog, which stands at 36,194 as of the end of July.
“For us to be the agency that I envision us being, having the reputation that we already have and want to enhance, we have to be as efficient as we can in the lab,” said recently appointed GBI Director, Vic Reynolds.
Reynolds says getting a handle on the backlog is a top priority of his. The opioid epidemic added to the problem, but employees said meth is still the top drug they see.
The agency is doing a top-down review to see where things can improve. Whether it’s more funding, manpower, or better technology, Reynolds said there are things internally and externally that can be done to improve the issue.
“Until I have a little bit better handle on what I think the issues are, and what we can do about them both internally and externally, I’m not comfortable laying it at the feet of any one particular reason,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds hopes to have a better idea by the start of next month. Local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors can help, too. Some items in the backlog either don’t need to be tested or are tied to a case that’s been resolved.
“If a prosecutor or a law enforcement agency around the state realizes, ‘hey, we’ve sent these 50 items to the lab, and the truth is, in order to dispose of the case, we may need 10 tested, not 50.’ That may be 40 items that they can call or contact us and say, ‘we don’t need those items tested,’” Reynolds said.
That could drastically shrink the backlog. New technology will also cut into it. Biology lab workers are verifying a new device that allows them to test more than 50 blood samples at once, more than six times their current capabilities. The verification process just ensures the technology provides accurate and consistent results. More than 7,800 items are backlogged in forensic science labs statewide.
Dennis O’Brien is a criminal defense attorney in Savannah. He said although even charges often impact people’s day to day lives, the answer is not to expedite the testing to get rid of a backlog.
“Some people might say, ‘well, they just need to hurry it up.’ No, in these types of cases, you absolutely cannot hurry it up,” O’Brien said. “You have to follow every protocol.”
“We cannot get it wrong,” said Nelly Miles, the agency’s Public Affairs Director, who spent more than 15 years in the lab. “Peoples’ lives are completely tied to the results we provide.”
Director Reynolds, the former Cobb County district attorney, agreed.
“If a case hinges on the findings of the lab, then that certainly elevates the importance of what the lab does,” Reynolds said. “This engine is on the track. It’s headed in the right direction. Do we need to tweak it here and there? Sure, most agencies would need a tweaking here and there. We intend on doing that. For the most part, they’re doing what they need to do in the right way.”
Reynolds said the backlog is comparable to other states in the region. He doesn’t anticipate ever being an in-and-out lab, considering about 800 agencies use the labs statewide. That said, he does expect improvements in the future.