Lab backlog keeps people in jail
PEOPLE are being held in jail for months without getting the chance to argue their cases in court because of long delays in the State’s forensic laboratories.
The issue, which was the subject of a damning Ombudsman’s report in 2006, was highlighted at the Lismore Local Court when prosecutors told the court three times in a row that cases had to be put on hold because of a big backlog of work at the State’s Division of Analytical Laboratories.
In one case, a man has so far spent eight months in prison awaiting his day in court, but prosecutors have been unable to even provide his defence team with a brief of the evidence they have against him.
The man’s lawyer, John Weller, told The Northern Star his client’s long wait was the result of delays in DNA testing, and the problem was widespread and even extended into the forensics labs of Queensland and Victoria.
“It becomes a concern when the time period (spent waiting) starts to equate with what a potential sentence might be,” Mr Weller said.
Even if they were on bail, the wait to face court put enormous stress on people accused of crimes, who might well turn out to be innocent.
“The budget (for forensic services) is tragically and disgracefully way behind,” he said.
One prosecutor at the Lismore Local Court last week warned the problem was getting worse, with wait times for drug analysis certificates now blowing out to eight or nine months.
Magistrate Robyn Denes, expressing her frustration at the delays from the bench, said in some jurisdictions the wait times being faced by local people would mean charges against them being dropped.
“In the UK they have a limited time for evidence to be presented and if it takes too long they (the person or people charged) have to be released,” she said.
The issue of delays in forensic analysis has been raised before. In 2006, the NSW Ombudsman released a damning report saying the laboratory was plagued by staff shortages, ageing infrastructure and a lack of resources. The result was long delays and a ‘growing backlog’ of unexamined evidence.
The report found overloading of the laboratories had resulted in mistakes being made. In one case a man was wrongly jailed after incorrect results from the labs blamed him for a crime. He was later tested again and released.
In 2008, then Police Minister David Campbell announced DNA testing would be outsourced to a private company in a bid to clear the backlog. At the time, Mr Campbell was reported saying the move would allow the analysis of an extra 30,000 DNA samples over three years.
The delays continue two years into that process, but a spokeswoman for Police Minister Michael Daley said the Government was making progress on the problem.
All Australian states are struggling under an increasing reliance on DNA testing by the nation’s crime fighters.
“Every Australian jurisdiction is dealing with the consequences of the success of this technology and the NSW Police Force is working with NSW Health to reduce delays,” the spokeswoman said.
“I am advised that the backlog of items to be tested has been roughly halved in the last two years, thanks to extra funds for scientific staff to process urgent cases.”
The outsourcing efforts were part of that improvement, the spokeswoman said.
“In the longer term we are spending more than $25 million over four years to undertake more DNA tests, speed up testing and purchase new cutting-edge forensic technology for police,” she said.