RICHMOND, Va. — A bill that has passed the Virginia General Assembly may provide some relief to local court systems as they wait for forensic evidence to be processed.

Sponsored by state Sen. Ben Chafin (R-Southwest Virginia), the bill will create a partnership between Virginia pharmacy schools and the Department of Forensics to conduct analysis. 

“The Virginia Department of Forensics has a well-known backlog of testing in controlled substance analyses cases,” he said when he introduced the bill last month. “As of January 1, 2019, the backlog has soared to over 13,000 cases still untested. The department has projected that this number will only grow and is now looking to outsource some of the testing to private companies. If these companies are out of state, issues could arise for law enforcement access, chain of custody and court appearances, and the associated costs.”

Chafin said that in Southwest Virginia the issues are worse for law enforcement, because they may have to drive sometimes hours for testing to only have the samples held up for months before testing. 

“Without the analysis and forensic testing, the court cases are held up slowing down our judicial process,” he said, adding that the bill would provide needed partnerships, in this area with the Appalachian School of Pharmacy in Buchanan County, as well as offer valuable experience for students.

“I am happy to announce that my bill has passed the Senate and the House and is now on the way to be signed into law by the Governor,” Chafin said Monday.

 That’s good news for Tazewell County Commonwealth’s Attorney Mike Dennis as well.

Dennis said recently that the backlog is long.

“We are experiencing a terrible backlog on certificates of analysis being returned,” he said. “It’s a minimum of six months (in drug offense cases) to get the lab results back and often even longer.”

Dennis said he understands more analysts have been hired by the state but it will be some time before the results can be seen.

During the wait, cases cannot move forward to a preliminary hearing, he said, and it prevents the case to be presented to a grand jury for an indictment.

In the meantime, some of those charged continue sitting in jail, costing the county money since per diem fees have to be paid to Southwest Regional Jail. It also adds to the number of pending court cases.

“The county pays the pretrial bill (for each day in jail),” he said, adding that most are released on bond but enough remain in jail for it to be a significant expense. “It’s still a waste that we should have to pay that.”

Dennis said the number of those drug cases now in jail awaiting forensic reports is not broken down in reports.

Chafin also said bipartisan legislation has been moved forward to give residents some flexibility in purchasing health insurance premiums.

“We’ve passed legislation to allow organizations and associations to pool together to offer lower cost group plans to their members or employees,” he said. “A measure to allow more individuals to purchase lower cost catastrophic care plans won widespread, bipartisan approval, too.”

Chafin said the affordability of healthcare is an issue that will not be solved easily. 

“With gridlock over the issue in Washington, the General Assembly has a responsibility to ensure Virginians have access to every available option the federal government permits,” he said. “We’ve been doing that and making many changes, which, if signed by the Governor, will make a positive difference for Virginians grappling with the rising costs of care and coverage.”

— Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com

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