Ala. drug lab delays adding to prison overcrowding problem

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — They don’t come with flashing lights or ear-piercing sirens, but drug investigation labs — and the people who work in them — are more important to a criminal justice system than you may think.

Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences Director Michael Sparks has his hands full dealing with a backlog of about 30,000 drug cases.

“You have to understand that a judge won’t have any evidence to hear,” Sparks says, “If we don’t have staff to work it.”

The department has lost 42 employees, three satellite drug labs and $5.2 million dollars in funding since 2009. It would take all employees working full time for one year to process the delayed 30,000 cases. Even more cases pile on each day.

“Once something gets broken like that,” Defense attorney Richard Jaffe says, “It’s not real easy to fix it.”

Jaffe says the delay in getting drug results is already a problem that carries disastrous implications. He’s most concerned about the effect the delays will have on jail populations.

“Once a jail is overcrowded, that becomes an extremely tense situation,” Jaffe says. “Violence can occur, guards get overworked, prisoners’ tempers fly and all kinds of bad things can happen.”

Sparks and his remaining staff are working to catch up.

“We didn’t get behind overnight because we lost people piecemeal,” Sparks says, “And we won’t get caught up overnight. But we do have a plan and we are moving forward.”

Sparks has four new employees training as chemists to process drug cases; however, it will take anywhere from 18 to 24 months before they’ll be certified to handle cases on their own.

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