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GBI cuts could create havoc

ALBANY -- When the Moultrie Crime lab closes its doors March 31, law enforcement officials and prosecutors say the justice system in Southwest Georgia could immediately begin feeling the impact in terms of backlogged cases and delayed prosecutions.

Next week, Dougherty County Sheriff Kevin Sproul and others will meet with Lowndes County Sheriff Chris Brown to discuss possibly creating a regional crime lab in Valdosta to cope with the shuttering of the state's crime labs.

The decision to cut some of the state's regional crime labs was made last year as the GBI administration and state legislators worked to overcome what was then thought to be a huge deficit. This year, revenues have continued to decline, creating an even bigger economic crisis for the General Assembly which has some worried that agents will be the next to go.

"It will have a tremendous effect on us," Sproul, speaking on the closing of the crime labs, told to the commission.

GBI officials say that, while losing three regional labs is not something anyone is happy about, it means that agents -- who could be next -- keep their job.

The concept of consolidating some field offices was discussed in the Senate, officials say, but was dismissed when it was determined it would likely save only a couple thousand dollars.

"Buildings don't investigate crimes, our agents do," GBI Spokesperson John Bankhead said. "We are 50 scientists short and don't have enough to keep all seven regional labs open, so rather than try and keep those labs open and lose field agents, the decision was made to pull the scientists to Atlanta and close three labs."

In fact, much of the services at the labs were already being done in Atlanta, as those in the labs shipped much of the evidence sent for processing to the GBI's main facility.

It's not the first time the state took a knife to the GBI budget. Several years ago, cuts were made that resulted in a large backlog of cases -- a move some are expecting will happen if additional cuts are forced on the agency.

"It was not uncommon to wait a year for results," Dougherty Chief Assistant District Attorney Christopher Cohilas said. "It truly delayed the justice process then, and that's what some expect will happen again. All it's going to do is snowball and cause some people to sit in jail longer on the county's dime rather than in prison on the state's dime."

That scenario is already happening at an alarming rate for those who have already been convicted.

Currently 15 percent of the inmate population at the Dougherty County Jail are convicted felons who are awaiting space at a Georgia State Prison facility. Each one of the estimated 126 currently in jail in Albany costs Dougherty County taxpayers $22 per day or roughly $660 per month, according to Jail Administrator Col. Doug McGinley.

Bankhead said that the agency is working closely with legislators to emphasize the importance of public safety, especially in the rural areas of the state where many departments depend on the services the agency delivers.

"Public safety should be a top priority. A safe Georgia should be one of their main concerns," Bankhead said. "Retaining agents and scientists is vital to providing those services to the citizens of Georgia especially in those areas who lack the resources or ability to be able to investigate certain types of crime."

The department, he says, is down to 240 agents statewide -- a far cry from the more than 400 that once filled their ranks.

But Bankhead downplays concerns over possible backlogs in cases, saying that they have instituted policies that prioritize cases meaning that, if given notice by local authorities, certain heinous or violent crimes can move to the top of their list.

"The key is letting us know," Bankhead said. "You can't let us know on Wednesday and expect results on Friday."

The closure of the crime labs, which also analyzed drugs, has forced local officials to outsource that responsibility to a private lab in Pennsylvania, causing logistical problems for the local legal systems.

"It's a preposterous logistical nightmare," Cohilas said. "We have to arrange for and pay for the scientists to come testify which does delay the process."

Locally, transporting evidence to Macon or Atlanta is having an impact on Sproul's budget. Monday, he told commissioners that was one item that will have to be discussed with Administrator Richard Crowdis as budget discussions increase in the coming weeks.