NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

Opinion

August 26, 2013

Our view: Lawmakers should revisit Tarr's crime lab bill

The news last week that the alleged chemical handiwork of the disgraced and criminally charged Annie Dookhan in the state’s shuttered Jamaica Plain crime lab tainted more than 40,000 drug cases has brought some predictable new cries of outrage, and an understandable new Statehouse push for reforms.

But state lawmakers on both sides of the partisan aisles need not worry about reinventing the wheel.

A series of reforms contained in a bill filed last January by state Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr and his Republican caucus — essentially placed on the Legislature’s dusty shelves at the time — already provide some practical and badly needed reform proposals that the Gloucester senator advanced when the crime lab system’s credibility was damaged well beyond other repairs. And that frankly came months before last week’s revelations pinpointed that drug cases involving no less than 40,323 individuals were tainted by Dookhan’s actions.

Among the provisions of Tarr’s crime lab oversight bill are calls for quarterly reports from the state’s undersecretary for forensic sciences that would outline:

The volume of forensic services at each facility;

The volume of forensic services handled by each employee at such facilities;

The costs and length of time from submission for testing or procedures and the return of results from such facilities;

Facility employee records, qualifications and incident reports.

A minimum of one public oversight hearing per year for the board to receive testimony relative to the operations of state laboratories.

Some of that may frankly sound like overkill — especially when carried out on a quarterly basis. And, over time, that may prove to be the case.

But lawmakers must face the reality that, right now, the state’s handling of drug crime evidence carries a level of credibility and confidence that, if measurable, would likely run into negative numbers. And while that may have drug-case defense lawyers frothing at the mouth from Gloucester to Granby and beyond, all of this sends a chilling message to law enforcement officials and residents who should be able to expect a much more secure system for preserving public safety.

Tarr noted Wednesday that his January bill “would instill the necessary oversight, accountability and transparency needed to ensure a system that demands integrity.” And he’s right.

It might not address all of the state’s crime lab ills. But it sure is a good place to start.

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