Delayed justice grows worse State crime lab backlog more than doubles since 2017

Paula Merritt / The Meridian Star

The Lauderdale County Detention Facility sits across the street from the county courthouse. 

The Meridian Star’s special report “Delayed Justice” published in February, 2018 placed a spotlight on lengthy delays for inmates of the Lauderdale County Detention Facility awaiting trials or even indictments.

For an update to that report this weekend, reporter Erin Kelly finds that in at least one way the situation has grown worse. One of the major causes for delays, a backlog of lab results from Mississippi’s state crime lab, is now more than double of what it was in 2017.

Mississippi Today reported in 2017 that the lab had more than 3,000 reports older than 90 days that year. Current records from the crime lab show that number is now 7,000.

Other factors cited by The Star in 2018 still exist to a degree: delays in suspects’ mental health evaluations; turnover in both the public defender and district attorney offices; and heavy case loads among them.

But most of the delays point back to the state crime lab.

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner conducts approximately 1,400 autopsies a year, an estimated average of 450-500 autopsies per pathologist, according to the information provided to The Meridian Star.

According to the National Association of Medical Examiners, an office cannot be fully accredited if any forensic pathologist in the office performs more than 325 in a year. If any forensic pathologist performs more than 250 autopsies in a year, the office receives a violation notice.

The Mississippi office has an opening for a fourth physician, but would like to hire at least two more, according to OCME. The staffing level is considered the main challenge to reducing the case load.

As with many deficiencies in Mississippi – prison conditions, road and bridge hazards, academic performance, health care and so on – lack of funding is cited as the root cause.

The crime lab reports it’s at its lowest level of funding since 2006.

Reasons cited for turnover and unfilled positions, at the crime lab and the public defenders' office, is opportunity for greater pay elsewhere with reduced case load.

“There’s a lot of people that can leave our crime lab and go just to Hoover, Alabama and have a 25 to 35 percent pay increase and a 50 percent caseload decrease,” 10th Circuit District Attorney Kassie Coleman told Kelly. “I get it that nobody wants to raise taxes, nobody wants to deal with those things, but you can't have a criminal justice system if you're not going to fund it.”

We know money doesn’t solve all problems and we know Mississippians are frugal. But at what expense is that frugality?

Delays compound costs for the district attorney’s office, the public defenders’ office, the courts and the sheriff’s department – all funded with public money. According Lauderdale County Sheriff's Department Chief Deputy Ward Calhoun, it takes $84.73 a day to house inmates at the county jail.

That’s your money, folks. What good is reduced spending now if it only increases taxpayer expense over time?

Beyond the monetary costs, though, people who have yet to be convicted wait years behind bars, victims and their families suffer from the open wounds of incomplete justice and law enforcement officers are frustrated by having done their jobs with no end result and a less likely chance of conviction.

While tinkering locally may streamline some of the Lauderdale County delays, we urge our state leaders to address the staffing deficiency at the state crime lab. The investment now will improve justice and save us money in the long term.

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