TBI responds to questions on drug test turnaround time

J. H. Osborne • Nov 17, 2019 at 5:00 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — The number of pretrial inmates housed in Sullivan County’s jail facilities has been cited as a factor in the jail overcrowding problem. And some county officials have said the long wait time to get inmates to court is due to the long wait time for drug-test results from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

According to monthly reports from the Tennessee Department of Corrections, roughly two-thirds of inmates in Sullivan County’s main jail and extension are classified as pretrial. The most recent report, from Sept. 30, indicates that the main jail housed 703 inmates, more than 68% of whom were pretrial, and the extension housed 300, more than 61% of whom were pretrial.

The TBI’s turnaround time on drug testing, and its connection to that high percentage of pretrial inmates, was publicly discussed at a meeting this month between the Sullivan County Commission and members of the county’s sheriff’s office and judicial system. Those who brought up the matter said they don’t blame the TBI, which they said has seen an uptick in test requests and needs more staff, equipment and space in its three crime labs — especially the one in Knoxville, which serves local law enforcement agencies throughout more than 20 counties of East Tennessee. Those local agencies submit drugs seized as part of their investigations to the Knoxville lab for testing.

The Times News asked the TBI for some statistics on drug testing and what the agency would need to help alleviate the long turnaround problem.

TBI Assistant Director for Forensic Services Mike Lyttle provided the following details and answers:

• The average turnaround for drug cases submitted to the Knoxville lab has been around 30 weeks for the past several months.

• That turnaround time is an average. Individual case turnaround time may be more or less based upon case complexity.

• Drug submissions to the Knoxville lab have increased from 825 average monthly submissions from 2005 to 2015 up to an average monthly submission rate of 1,272  so far in 2019. That’s a 54% increase.

• Between 2005 and 2015, there were an average of 10 special agent/forensic scientists working drug cases in the Knoxville lab.

• Several things are being done to address the increase in case submissions.

• Staffing has been increased in the drug unit from 10 to 13 (one position was a new position approved by the Tennessee General Assembly and two positions were “redistributed” from other lab units). That helps the drug unit but hurts other units.

• Cases from the Knoxville lab have been sent to the TBI’s Nashville lab to help with the backlog. That is a short-term solution to help clear the backlog, but it creates other long-term issues. An example: now some Nashville lab employees will need to travel to East Tennessee for court testimony.

• The TBI will need at least three more employees in the Knoxville lab’s drug unit just to break even with past submission rates. That does not take into consideration increased case complexity the TBI now sees, for example, due to fentanyl (and fentanyl analogs) and discerning between hemp and marijuana.

• Taking into consideration that increased case complexity, the Knoxville lab’s drug unit needs five to six additional employees.

• Each lab unit in all three TBI labs has similar challenges, and more people and equipment seems the best solution. Ultimately, more people will require more space.