What good is it to beef up police, add more judges, hand out stiffer criminal sentences and build more prisons if law-enforcement authorities can't get the forensic evidence analyzed in a timely enough fashion to win convictions?
Crime lab scientists aren't as "high profile" as police officers, prosecutors or judges, yet that doesn't mean they're any less important. It seems that this low visibility accounts for the fact that throughout the 1990s the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's Atlanta crime lab and its six regional labs have been woefully understaffed.
The Legislature has incrementally pumped more money into the labs, but clearly it's not enough. Just like the lab in Atlanta, Augusta's east regional lab -- which services Richmond and 15 surrounding counties -- is backlogged up to six months or a year, even for priority cases.
Shamefully, the caseload at Augusta's lab has more than doubled since 1990, but it's still staffed by only five scientists. They are excellent forensic scientists working with top-of-the-line equipment, but what good is that if there are too few hands to properly run it?
Also there is this to consider: Overworked and understaffed crime labs are more likely to make mistakes that destroy prosecution cases.
Another problem is that in the last several years the level of expertise has been increasing, meaning testing has gotten more elaborate and detailed, often requiring more time. Yet such delays in evidence processing benefits criminal suspects by eroding the edge investigators need to quickly close a case.
Crime lab backlogs also cause hardship to victims' relatives who can't collect life insurance until a death certificate listing the cause of death is issued. This can leave families temporarily impoverished with no way to pay for their homes, cars or other needs.
How to pay for properly staffing GBI's crime labs should be the No. 1 anti-crime campaign issue for both legislative and gubernatorial candidates this election year.