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Budget Hearing In Worcester Zeroes in on Crime Lab Scandals

Thursday, February 21, 2013

 

Talk of the two recent scandals at state drug labs and how to deal with the backlog they've created within the State Police lab system dominated the public hearing on the state budget in Worcester on Wednesday.

The joint public hearing of the state House and Senate Ways and Means committees was held at the Worcester State University student center, where the discussion would focus on the proposed budgets for public safety and the judiciary, but the main topic of concern was on both sides of the conversation was the labs.

The Hinton state lab in Jamaica Plain was closed back in August immediately following the revelation that chemist Annie Dookhan allegedly tampered with drug samples, faked results and forged signatures, throwing thousands of cases into potential jeopardy.

More recently, the state lab at UMass-Amherst was closed last month when chemist Sonja Farak allegedly tampered with evidence and stole drugs from the lab.

Both labs were under the aegis of the state Department of Public Health (DPH). The Massachusetts State Police lab is now handling all of the testing and analysis at its facilities.

Secretary of Public Safety Andrea Cabral said that in the recent supplemental state budget for the current fiscal year the crime lab has requested $1.4 million in immediate funds for chemists, equipment and quality control, among other things.

The remaining chemists from the DPH labs have been put on administrative leave with pay, and no wrongdoing has been alleged.

According to Cabral, roughly 14,000 samples from the Amherst and Hinton labs still need to be assessed and converted to the way they are analyzed and processed in the state police lab, which differs from the practices at the DPH labs.

The budget proposal for FY2014 would allow for the hiring of 38 new chemists for the state police lab in Sudbury. The Jamaica Plain lab will not reopen; the Amherst lab may. But even with the additional manpower, the state still faces a significant delay in processing.

"We expect a backlog that will take at least two years to get down," said Cabral, noting that it grows every day and that officials try to prioritize cases based on need despite the backup.

The chemists currently out on administrative leave would require three months of training to be transitioned to the state police lab.

"We're not intentionally keeping them off-line," Cabral said.

When asked by state Sen. Benjamin Downing (D-Pittsfield) about how the proposed public safety budgets reflect the needs that have arisen following the two lab scandals, Cabral replied "Our hope is that we get this done once and we get it done right."

The 38 new hires are expected to remain on staff after the two-year period necessary to work through the backlog of cases.

Also included in the budget requests for the lab, said Cabral, are background checks and screenings for potential lab personnel, as well as the installation of cameras in the labs.

"We're actually looking at things like biometric identification," she said.
 

 

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