ATLANTA -- The stress of dealing with heavy workloads, low pay and staff retirements has left the Georgia Bureau of Investigation with a dwindling staff, which has resulted in Crime Lab and court delays, the agency says.
GBI workers are dealing with more than twice the nation's average of 250 cases per person each year. Average caseloads at the lab number nearly 600 per person and according to one chemist can sometimes exceed 2,000.
"We're trying to push too much through the system," GBI Executive Assistant Director Tony Gailey said. "Everybody wants quality. Everybody wants it faster."
That pressure has led to the departure of nearly two-thirds of the agency's 100 employees over the past five years. The migration has resulted in lab backups and the slowing of arrests and trials throughout the state.
"We absolutely understand how important what we do here is to the criminal justice system," said GBI Director Buddy Nix. "We know prosecutors cannot go forward until we do our work. When we become (such) a choke point that it has an impact on the system, that's intolerable."
This year, eight scientists, a clerk and two administrators have either left or announced their departures.
Of the employees who have left so far, 47 were pathologists, document examiners and scientists. Their $23,940 starting salary makes it difficult to find replacements, because they can earn twice as much in other states or in the private sector.
"You work every case with everything that you've got to keep from making a mistake," said former Crime Lab drug analyst Steve Ellis, who left the agency in February after 25 years. "But obviously when you're pressed for time and you've got only so much time for a case, instead of continuing to work it, you might just stop and say, `I've done all I could,' and give an inconclusive."
Ballistics expert Richard Ernest agreed the pressure is on at the GBI. He headed to a better-paying, less stressful job at the Fort Worth, Texas, medical examiner's office a few years ago.
"Most of the time I spent at the GBI, I was under a huge caseload and a half-dozen people hanging on me for an answer," he said. "When you live your life like that, year in and year out, it wears you down."
Thirteen clerks or secretaries left the agency as well and were replaced by scientists and technicians who split their time between their regular work and clerical duties.
But Mr. Nix said the slowdowns will probably get worse rather than better now that a new policy requires peer review of every scientist's findings.
"We ... realize we don't have any margin for error out there when you realize that cell doors can open or that cell doors can close based on what we do," he said.
Mr. Nix says the agency is training seven new scientists but that the process takes two to three years and costs $83,000.
"We're training them and then they're out the door," said Mr. Gailey.
Here's a look at the top and bottom five states in cases per crime lab employee in 1997:
Georgia -- 587
Tennessee -- 516
Utah -- 466
New Hampshire -- 436
Virginia -- 389
Rhode Island -- 95
Connecticut -- 93
Colorado -- 86
South Dakota -- 85
Indiana -- 24
Source: Georgia Bureau of Investigation