OSBI officials to ask legislators for money to help with drug labs

Monday, February 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) -- Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation officials will waste no time in asking lawmakers to help them with money to ease a drug-case backlog that has frustrated state agents, county sheriffs and prosecutors.

OSBI officials plan to begin talking to state legislators about the problem on Monday, when the 2001 legislative session opens.

One key legislator says he will listen.

"I find that they are always straight shooters on things, and they don't ask for something unless it's a really good need," said state Rep. Jim Dunegan, D-Calera, who is chairman of the House budget subcommittee for public safety.

The OSBI has increased its number of meth lab responses from 10 in 1994 to 710 six years later.

The difficulties lie in dealing with those crime-lab investigations and getting them processed in a timely manner.

"With the explosion of meth labs in that area, we were basically unprepared," OSBI spokeswoman Kym Koch said.

The proposed OSBI Forensics Science Improvement Act would allow the agency to catch up. The measure would provide an extra $2.8 million in the first year so the OSBI can hire more agents and lab technicians and expand several of its facilities.

"We have 55 criminalists among the labs. This would add 23 more positions," Koch said.

In Adair County for instance, the Sheriff's Office and other agencies have made 415 felony drug arrests in the past 10 years.

Not one of those, however, has ended up in a state prison sentence.

"We had a jury disposition docket in Adair County last month with cases from 1998 that had no labs," District Attorney Dianne Barker Harrold said.

The OSBI Forensics Science Improvement Act would not solve all problems involved in drug prosecutions, she said.

"It's definitely a step in the right direction," Barker Harrold said.

OSBI administrators want to spread the act's effectiveness out over several years if and when it is approved. The agency currently operates with an approximately $25 million annual budget.

OSBI crime labs performed 232,268 examinations during the last fiscal year, a nearly 60 percent increase from the number of examinations in 1994.

In addition, more and more criminalists are sent out to crime scenes, taking them away from lab work.

"What we're looking for with the proposal is a stream of funding to allow the OSBI laboratory system to provide our services in a timely manner," Koch said.

The OSBI Forensics Science Improvement Act likely would not receive final legislative approval until late in the session this spring. Monday's meeting simply will be an introduction to the agency's crime-lab needs.

If approved, the OSBI lab funding would not come from new money, but from a revolving fund generated through agency fees.

Dunegan said his subcommittee would have to look at how large the fund is before agreeing to allocate any money out of it.

"We cannot expend the funds for just anything. It has to designated," Dunegan said.

Dunegan said he believes the OSBI has a pretty good handle on what needs to be spent where. The OSBI operates crime labs in Enid, Durant, McAlester, Lawton, Oklahoma City and Tahlequah.

Oklahoma ranked second only to California last year in the amount of methamphetamine seized during raids, according to reports. The state rated third in the number of busts.