Notes from the Senate
by Halei Lamb | December 7, 2017 1:20 pm
by SENATOR JACK HILL, 4th District
GBI’S CRITICAL MISSION- FORENSIC SCIENCES
The Georgia Bureau of Investigations (GBI) Division of Forensic Sciences (DOFS), often referred to as the Crime Lab, is a vital part of GBI’s mission. The Division is the primary resource for all forensic testing in the State of Georgia. DOFS serves all local and state law enforcement agencies and prosecutors. Due to the increased reliance on forensics in the criminal justice system, DOFS has seen a large increase in workload over the last few years.
The Division of Forensic Sciences operates through seven labs across the state, with the lab at GBI Headquarters performing the widest range of services. DOFS offers services across many disciplines including Chemistry, Firearms, Forensic Biology, Latent Prints, the State Medical Examiner’s Office, Operations Support, Toxicology and Trace Evidence. These departments cover everything from DNA testing (forensic biology) to determining the presence of alcohol or illegal substances in blood (toxicology).
Forensic Biology, Toxicology and Chemistry in particular have become in-demand fields. Between 2009 and 2017, GBI estimates that requests for Biology/DNA analysis have increased 18%, while requests for toxicology analysis have increased by 25%, and latent print analysis requests have increased 32%. The Crime Lab also operates the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) which stores DNA profiles for offenders nationally. By September, GBI had 49 confirmed CODIS matches of existing DNA profiles to new crimes and submitted 1,170 new DNA profiles to the database.
The State Medical Examiner’s Office (SMEO) is a division within the Division of Forensic Sciences and is responsible for determining the cause and manner of death. Medical Examiners, or Forensic Pathologists, are formally trained physicians. The SMEO has personnel at three of the GBI’s labs.
FORENSIC REPORT BACKLOG
The state’s crime laboratory is currently dealing with the issue of backlogs. In the forensic science field, a report is listed as backlogged if it has not been worked after 30 days of the receipt of a particular piece of evidence. GBI has seen an increase in backlogs across many areas, but currently over 49% of that backlog is from the Chemistry Division, which handles the testing of drug samples.
The problems GBI is experiencing are not unique to Georgia, as the growth in backlogs is something states across the country have been dealing with for years. The backlog can be attributed to many factors including an increase in submissions, staff turnover or vacancies, and the increasing complexity of cases. However, staffing levels are the primary driver of backlogs, due to the amount of training it takes for new employees to become proficient. The timeline for training a new forensic scientist ranges from 10 to 18 months, which helps explain why some of the measures taken in the budget have not alleviated the backlogs immediately.
BUDGET ENHANCEMENTS FOR MEDICAL EXAMINERS
There have been two main objectives for the State Medical Examiner’s Office (SMEO) budget additions in recent years: increasing salaries to retain and recruit new medical examiners (ME’s) and increasing the current space and storage capabilities of morgues. In FY2016, $480,084 was appropriated to give medical examiners raises as well as to hire additional ME’s to maintain appropriate workloads. At the time of that increase, GBI had gone more than a year without being able to fill a ME position due to the competitiveness nationally of hiring MEs.
There are only an estimated 500 medical examiners nationwide, which makes hiring especially difficult in the ME field. In FY2018, GBI was appropriated funds for another salary increase as well as to start a fellowship program with Augusta University to help the agency recruit future medical examiners.
GBI has also received bond funding that will increase the size of the morgues at Headquarters and in Savannah. Due to increasing populations as well as overdose deaths, GBI has outgrown both locations. The bond funding for the new Savannah Laboratory will also benefit the Chemistry, Firearms, Forensic Biology, and Toxicology disciplines that operate out of that Lab.
BUDGET ENHANCEMENTS FOR FORENSIC SCIENCES
The primary goal for the other disciplines has been to add scientists to help deal with increased caseloads and growing backlogs. In FY2017, five new toxicologist positions were added as well as eleven additional scientist positions. Additionally, the FY2018 General Budget appropriates funds for eight scientists and four technicians to help address the rape kit backlog. Due to the long training times mentioned above, these budget additions have not yet made an impact on backlogs; however, that could change soon as some of the FY2017 positions begin to come online.
More information can be found at: https://gbi.georgia.gov/gbi-monthly-statistical-report.
I may be reached at 234 State Capitol, Atlanta, GA 30334; 404-656-5038 (phone); 404-657-7094 (fax); e-mail at Jack.Hill@senate.ga.gov; toll-free at 1-800-367-3334, day or night; or by phone at my Reidsville office, 912-557-3811.