Montgomery Co. court officials trying to get handle on backlog of drug cases

Published: Jun. 18, 2014 at 6:20 PM CDT|Updated: Jun. 28, 2014 at 3:39 AM CDT
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MONTGOMERY CO., AL (WSFA) - Drug cases are piling up in Montgomery County and across the state as jurisdictions wait to receive forensic reports from the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences. A backlog has been accumulating over a period of five years.

"These are folks that need to be dealt with in the criminal justice system, that need to see a judge, that need to face the prosecution and we can't do it without these reports," said Montgomery County District Attorney Daryl Bailey.

Bailey says there are 39,000 drug cases statewide waiting to be analyzed by the Department of Forensic Sciences. In the 16 county area that includes Montgomery, there are more than 5,000 cases and in Montgomery County alone, there are more than 1,200 drug cases prosecutors are waiting to take to court.

"Unfortunately, there are only two analysts that are working in the 16 county area to provide us these reports and what this causes is a huge back log in the criminal justice system," Daryl Bailey told WSFA.

State Forensic Sciences Director Michael Sparks said his schedule did not allow for an on camera interview on the drug case backlog. But he provided 12 News with information on the situation.

According to Sparks, in 2009, there was no backlog in casework. Then, budget cuts forced staffers statewide out the door, mostly forensic scientists.

Now, with a 40% reduction in general fund appropriation compared to 2009, there are fewer employees and a 12-18 month wait on drug chemistry cases.

"What I understand from the Department of Forensic Sciences is that they're receiving 300 cases more a month than they can do the analysis for. So obviously this backlog is growing monthly," Bailey said.

The governor and legislature recently approved a $1.5 million increase in the general fund to DFS which is effective October 1, 2014 and will help hire personnel and buy equipment to tackle the backlog and ensure backlogs do not reoccur.

But Sparks says even with the general fund increase, it will take time to extensively train new scientists before they can do case analyses on their own and new instruments will require validation before they are used for cases.

Currently in Montgomery County , there's a 15 month period before drug cases are presented in a grand jury as prosecutors wait for forensic reports. The district attorney says there's a public safety concern associated with the backlog.

"Obviously they had a drug problem that got them into this situation and they have gotten no help from the criminal justice system and what they're out there doing is breaking into your car or your house to feed their drug habit and the criminal justice system has done nothing to deal with the problem because of this backlog," Bailey said.

Bailey says five years ago, there was a similar problem with a backlog of DNA cases. 

"Because of grants and additional financial resources to the Department of Forensic Sciences, the DNA backlog has been eradicated. Now, we are getting DNA within 30 days because the proper financial resources have been applied to those cases," he said. 

In the meantime, the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office is hoping to plow through 1000 drug cases next month by holding a special court docket. The cases will be before the district court judges.

"We have come together with our judges and the solution that we have come up with is to do a docket which we call a plea on information docket to see if any of these defendants will go ahead and plead guilty to these charges without the scientific results. Our research tells us most of these defendants will go ahead and plead guilty to these charges because they want to get the help that they need and they want to get this over with and go on with their lives," Bailey explained.

Those who are eligible will be placed in a drug court program and those who are not eligible will be sent to prison or put on probation. The district attorney says those facing serious drug charges like trafficking or distribution will not be included in the special docket and will have to wait for their day in court.

State Forensic Sciences Director Michael Sparks says the backlog problem will not be corrected quickly.

"However, it is our most pressing problem and will be our first analytical priority on a daily basis," he said in a statement.

The Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences is the sole accredited provider of forensic laboratory services in the state, serving more than 450 law enforcement agencies and 450 courts.

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