Editorial: The backlog of justice — Budget-cutting of vital departments has created an Alabama nightmare
by The Anniston Star Editorial Board
Feb 17, 2014 | 3566 views |  0 comments | 21 21 recommendations | email to a friend | print
APD Sgt. Owen weighs marijuana in the Anniston Police Dept. evidence lab. Photo: Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star
APD Sgt. Owen weighs marijuana in the Anniston Police Dept. evidence lab. Photo: Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star
The crisis in Alabama’s courts caused by a 30,000-case backlog of drug cases is frustrating, potentially dangerous and, we note with sadness, completely predictable.

In fact, when the state began slashing public-safety budgets at the start of the decade, law-enforcers, prosecutors and others predicted this legal-system traffic jam.

Well, it’s here.

The consequences, as The Star’s Madasyn Czebiniak reported Sunday, are showing up in a Calhoun County courthouse. In recent months, Judge Chris McIntyre dismissed 10 pending narcotics cases because lab results are almost two years late. The state’s crime lab backlog is denying defendants’ constitutional right to a speedy trial, the judge reckons.

He’s right.

So, how did we get here?

The root cause is money. As a weak economy cut into state government’s revenue, Alabama’s leaders faced a difficult choice: Make cuts or raise more money.

The problem for Alabama is that by 2011 there was no low-hanging fruit to cut from the state’s budgets, which almost never spent lavishly to begin with. In reality, the options for Gov. Robert Bentley and the newly elected Republican legislative majority were: Raise more money or cut into essential services — criminal justice, for example. (We hasten to note that a fair and efficient criminal justice system is one of the hallmarks of an effective government.)

Well, Bentley and the rest weren’t about to disturb Alabama’s longtime comfortable by seeking more money. So, crime labs were closed in Anniston, Dothan and Florence. The state reduced the Department of Forensic Sciences’ budget by 40 percent. Staffing is down by more than 30 positions. A state operation that once employed 42 drug chemists now employs 19.

Over the past five years — guess what? — criminals have not reduced their activities by 40 percent, which explains the state’s backlog of cases.

There’s a debate to be had over narcotics laws and the resulting crowded prisons and backlogged drug cases. However, we aren’t hearing much about that from Montgomery. Instead, we have an abundance of politicians who talk tough on crime and then deny the state’s public-safety apparatus necessary money.

We are miles away from when Bentley, as candidate for governor in 2010, promised to “place a high priority on confronting crime in Alabama.”
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