Republican lawmakers want to create a separate, unelected judicial district in Jackson to clear Hinds County’s case backlog and address crime in Jackson, but the state’s overwhelmed and understaffed Crime Lab may make that impossible.
During more than four hours of debate on House Bill 1020, several Jackson lawmakers said the court has a backlog because of the Mississippi Forensics Laboratory, which is where local police departments, sheriffs and other law enforcement send evidence to be analyzed and used in trials.
“We can get two new judges appointed by the Supreme Court, but you know what? They’re going to have the same problem getting stuff from the Crime Lab,” said Rep. Earle Banks, D-Jackson.
Banks said judges across the state — not just in Hinds County — have problems receiving evidence from the Crime Lab in a timely manner.
The bill, which has attracted broad national scrutiny to the state, would create a Capitol Complex Improvement District courts system with two appointed judges as well as appointed prosecutors, public defenders and a clerk. The officials who would make the appointments – the Supreme Court Chief Justice and the state attorney general – are white, while a majority of Jackson and Hinds residents are Black.
The lack of manpower and resources at the state Crime Lab has a direct effect on the judges’ ability to move cases forward, a Hinds County judge told Mississippi Today this week. Often there is a delay, the judge said, because an autopsy hasn’t been completed or ballistics or lab results are pending or a lab expert isn’t available to testify.
During a Jan. 11 Senate Appropriations Committee meeting, Public Safety Commissioner Sean Tindell acknowledged the state’s forensic backlog has reached a critical level and is growing as staff leave.
With him were two state Crime Lab technicians who said they were quitting due to low pay. The entry salary for a scientist at the lab is $33,600 and requires a bachelor’s degree, which is a lower salary than other government agencies and the private sector offer. Additionally, raises for more senior staff were not enough, the former employees said.
The Crime Lab, which also handles autopsies through the state medical examiner’s office, also has a backlog, but that has been greatly reduced since 2020 due to hiring and contracting work supported by federal relief funds, Tindell said during the meeting. He said the goal is to have the autopsy backlog eliminated by the end of 2023.
As of Wednesday, the Crime Lab has 60 employees to process evidence, a DPS spokesperson said. Staffing has remained around that number for the past two years.
The Crime Lab received nearly 25,000 requests from state, local and federal agencies in 2017, according to the most recent publicly available report from DPS. There were about 60 scientists who received about 3,000 subpoenas for court testimony across Mississippi, according to the report.
All forensic scientists can be called to trial, and drug and firearms analysts are called in more often than the DNA analysts, the DPS spokesperson said.
Last year, the Legislature approved federal relief funds for Chief Justice Michael Randolph to appoint four special judges to the Hinds court system.
During debate about HB 1020, lawmakers also asked if increasing the number of elected judges in Hinds County could help work through the case backlog. As caseloads have increased over the years, lawmakers said four circuit court judges is not enough.
“I’ve heard about the (court) backlog and the problem, but not heard one single word (of) ‘Let’s increase the number of judges in Jackson, Mississippi. Let’s increase the amount of resources to operate,’” said Rep. Edward Blackmon Jr., D-Canton, during debate.
Bill author Rep. Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, said the Legislature can look at potentially adding more elected judges during judicial redistricting. During judicial redistricting in 2015, judges were not added for Hinds County.
Jackson lawmakers said nobody asked them about the bill or what the city and county’s needs are for its criminal justice system, which they say could include more funding for the Jackson Police Department, support for Hinds County prosecutors and additional elected judges.
Rep. Zakiya Summers, D-Jackson, asked Lamar why the $1.6 million funding for the bill could not have been used to give resources to the city to address public safety concerns or to help the Hinds County court system reduce its case backlog.
“Lady, this is the bill that is before the body,” he replied.
House Bill 1020 was referred to the Senate’s Judiciary A Committee, which has a Feb. 28 deadline to be passed before it can be considered by the full Senate.