By editorial board • 

Delays in forensic analysis mire criminal justice system

Oregon’s justice system is mired at every level, including here in Yamhill County, because of forensic analysis delays at the Oregon State Police Forensic Services Division. But before hurling brickbats toward the OSP, let’s consider the December 2015 report from the Secretary of State Audits Division.

As evidence of the problem, the OSP case backlog has nearly doubled since 2005. That speaks to forensics requests that are untested within 30 days, with the most recent estimate being an average of 65 days for case turnaround.

It can be longer. For example, the Yamhill County District Attorney’s Office just this month received toxicology reports related to a July 2015 double-fatality west of McMinnville. We have to wonder how long similar testing will take following the triple-fatality outside Yamhill 10 days ago.

Toxicology, of course, is only one of many forensics tests handled by the OSP system. It analyzes evidence related to other biological material, crime scenes, DNA, drugs, fingerprints, firearms, serial numbers and trace evidence, while also providing equipment tests and training for Oregon’s alcohol implied consent program.

Looking to the numbers: Oregon’s forensics program spent $35.8 million in 2013-15, but only 10 percent of that money was on state police cases. The five OSP labs also serve 36 district attorneys, 36 sheriff’s offices, 143 police departments, three U.S. attorney offices, six FBI offices and about 1,200 criminal defense attorneys.

Analysis requests increased 31 percent since 2005, hitting 29,500 in 2014. There has been almost no increase in OSP manpower for the forensics labs, and in 2013 there was an extra jump in backlogged cases due to staff vacancies and leaves.

The Secretary of State’s audit identified ways to improve the system, including better use of electronic notes and processing, stricter enforcement of test submission guidelines and changes in the personnel performance rating system. Inexplicably, case workers have been receiving points for completing tests on cases that have been canceled by clients.

Further complicating matters for the division, an analyst with its Bend office was accused last year of tampering with drug evidence, perhaps involving almost 1,000 cases over several years. A criminal investigation continues.

OSP Captain Ted Phillips spoke for the division in response to the audit. Implementing audit recommendations, he wrote, “will help but not meet the current and growing demands the Division is facing.”

In other words, Oregon’s justice system will continue to wait for weeks or months on forensic testing until the state can find more resources to bolster OSP systems, technology and personnel.

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