BLUEFIELD — Delays in analyzing forensic evidence in drug cases are costing Mercer County and other municipalities around the state substantial dollars.
But according to a West Virginia State Police 2015 report, it’s a matter of increased demand and a lack of personnel and equipment to keep up with the workload.
All evidence collected from criminal investigations from every county and jurisdiction in the state is sent to the West Virginia State Police Forensic Laboratory in Charleston.
That 2015 report pointed to a “tremendous backlog of approximately 2,400 drug cases” in the lab, which was not fully staffed. That figure stood at more than 2,900 in fall of this year, according to a recent release.
The services are free, but the judicial process is dependent on obtaining those test results.
Mercer County Prosecuting Attorney-elect George Sitler said the delay in processing evidence means more jail time for inmates.
“It is routine for drug cases to take more than a year to process,” he said. “Whatever we send we don’t get the results back for a year, even if somebody is sitting in jail waiting for the drugs to be analyzed.”
Sitting in jail at a cost of almost $50 a day brings a financial sting to the county, which has to foot the bill.
Sitler said that on average 20 to 25 inmates who are in jail on drug-related crimes are awaiting processing.
Those 25 inmates cost the county a total of almost $1,250 a day at Southern Regional Jail, or about $450,000 a year, he said.
“It’s a huge problem,” Sitler said. “I think that the legislature needs to appropriate more money to the crime lab.”
The entire cost would not be eliminated with quicker processing because of the procedural requirements, he said. “But certainly it could significantly reduce that number (total cost) if we had a quicker turnaround at the lab.”
It’s a problem Mercer County Commissioner Greg Puckett is well aware of.
“The County Commission is continually concerned about the rising costs of our jail bill and its direct effect on how we collectively manage services within the county,” he said. “On average, the jail bill is around $150,000 per month.”
Puckett said that despite working with the Day Report Center and Drug Court services to divert long-term jail costs, the county is not able to reduce the county’s costs quickly enough.
With the inability to move many drug cases faster, “taxpayers are footing the bill for regional incarceration,” he said. “Like most West Virginia counties, it is continually our number one drain on economics.”
Mercer County Sheriff Don Meadows said it’s not a matter of it being anyone’s fault, it’s about having enough personnel at the crime lab.
“They are just short-handed and have a hard time getting to the cases,” he said. “I can sympathize with them. They are just covered up. We are not the only ones with the problem, it’s statewide.”
Meadows said another factor that has added to the problem is that times have changed.
“There are so many people people being arrested (on drugs and other charges),” he said. “It makes it tough on everybody.”
State agencies are all short on funding, he said. “They do the best they can.”
McDowell County Prosecuting Attorney Ed Kornish reflected the same concerns that Mercer County officials have.
“We have 50 to 60 drug cases backed up,” he said. “It does take up to a year to get the results back. I don’t think it’s a lack of effort (at the crime lab). People there work as hard as they can. The legislature has to give them more money. That’s the answer. They are not fully funded.”
Kornish said there are two other aspects to the problem. One is the continued back-up in cases requiring DNA testing.
“We have backlogs there as well,” he said. “It takes us months to get those results.”
Kornish said DUIs also can be a problem, not necessarily with jail time, but creating a backlog in magistrate courts.
“A lot of our DUIs now involve drugs other than alcohol,” he said. “They (those who are charged) are entitled to have blood tests, but it takes six to nine months to get those results back. We like to dispose of these cases in magistrate courts in three months.”
Kornish said some cases take so long they get “dismissed without prejudice,” which means they may still be brought back to court at some point after the test results are available.
State Del. Marty Gearheart (R-Mercer County) said he knew of the backlog in the DNA testing, but was not aware of the details of the other backlogs.
Gearheart is on the finance committee and he said it’s an issue he will look into.
“It (the forensic lab) is under the purview of the West Virginia State Police,” he said. “When they come to us with their budget I can ask them specific questions about that problem and how it affects the counties.”
Gearheart said he will learn more about what needs to be done.
The problem has not escaped the attention of state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.
Although the West Virginia State Police does not fall under the purview of his office,
Morrisey calls the situation “critical” and said the issue must be addressed.
“If you have to wait for a year (for the drug analysis), you cannot either prosecute or exonerate,” he said. “We were troubled by that.”
Morrisey said he transferred $1 million from the Consumer Protection Fund to the West Virginia State Police for the forensic lab earlier this month.
“We are working hard to try to eliminate that backlog,” he said, adding that it was averaging 246 days. Eliminating that backlog is one of the goals.
“This will be a win for the counties as well,” he said. “If you are able to identify the drugs then you may have fewer people sitting in the regional jail (waiting for trial).”
A backlog exacerbates crowding in the regional jails by affecting bail consideration for suspects and delaying exoneration for the innocent, he said. Reducing that backlog promises to ease crowding and save counties on inmate costs.
An attempt earlier this year to provide more funding for the state police to address this issue was rejected by Gov. Earl Ray Tomlin, he said.
Morrisey said his office will continue to work closely with the state police on the problem and he hopes the incoming governor will as well.
The problem has been identified by law enforcement officials around the state as a top issue, he added.
“We have to have their backs,” he said. “They certainly have ours.”
When the announcement of the $1 million transfer was made, State Police Col. Jay Smithers said it was welcome.
“This contribution will have an impact far beyond Charleston,” he said. “It is one that touches every state trooper, county deputy and city police officer who yearns for a swift, effective prosecution of their drug arrests.”
According to that annual report for fiscal year 2015, the state forensic laboratory received close to 7,200 cases ( a 300-case increase from fiscal year 2014) from various law enforcement agencies across the state and tested approximately 36,000 samples. The total cost of operations for the forensic laboratory for the year was about $5 million.
The Drug Identification Section, according to the report, was comprised in 2015 of four full-time analysts (down from six in 2014), one part-time analyst, one trainee and two vacancies, but it continues to receive the majority of cases submitted to the laboratory (close to 3,700 submissions in fiscal year 2015) with heroin and marijuana being the most common drugs tested.
“The section continues to work toward decreasing their tremendous backlog of approximately 2,400 drug cases (a 20% increase from last fiscal year),” the report says. “Because of the backlog, the section currently works primarily rush cases (those with a pending court date) and receives approximately 50 expedited letters each week.”
The most critical needs listed for the section were at least two to three Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometers (GCMS) to replace current instruments that can no longer be serviced due to age.
Even with that tremendous backlog and critical instrument needs, the section continues to build its database of new synthetic drugs and has worked diligently to ensure state legislation is current with national synthetic drug trends, the report said.
“While we are acquiring much needed space within the building, dedicated laboratory funding for instrumentation purchases, hiring/ retention of forensic analysts, and overall general operations is crucial for the success of the laboratory,” the report said.
Sheri Lemons, forensic lab director, said the 2016 report has not yet been released, but the problems are still there.
In the fall 2016 Lab Report newsletter, the Drug Identification Section had 2,916 incomplete cases.
No decision has yet been made on how the $1 million from the attorney general’s office will be used, she added.
“I have sent in my recommendations,” she said.
Besides the Drug Identification Section, the lab includes sections that process toxicology, trace evidence, biochemistry, evidence processing, latent prints, firearm/toolmarks and questioned documents.
— Contact Charles Boothe at firstname.lastname@example.org