Law enforcement authorities raised concerns Tuesday that the drug testing scandal that erupted earlier this year at a laboratory run by the state Department of Public Health will continue to have fallout and that dangerous criminals will return to neighborhoods.
Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis told a legislative committee Wednesday that he fears that a backlog of cases at the State Police crime lab, made worse by the scandal, will spur judges to release criminal defendants to the streets, instead of holding them, while their cases languish in the courts.
Davis said that of the 159 defendants released statewide because of the drug lab scandal so far, 110 have returned to Boston and pose public safety threats. Davis said that eight of those released have been arrested on new crimes. Some 600 offenders are expected to return to city streets because of the lab scandal.
The commissioner has long tied drug crimes to the city’s violence: Police say 20 percent of the slayings in Boston in 2010 were drug-related, including the Mattapan massacre case being tried in Suffolk Superior Court.
Davis said the arrests of drug offenders have made a dent in overall crime. “If we can’t get them on shootings, we hook them on the drug angle,” he said, adding that the offenders released because of the drug scandal could contribute to an increase in home invasions, turf wars, and other violence.
Davis testified before a legislative oversight committee investigating the consequences of one of the worst scandals involving the criminal justice system in the state’s history. A former state chemist, Annie Dookhan, 35, has been accused of tampering with drug samples by mixing them, misstating their weight, and, in some cases, not testing them at all. She has been charged in criminal court in Boston with intimidating a witness by falsely reporting information to a judge, and officials said her misconduct was extensive.
Drug evidence in tens of thousands of cases in Eastern Massachusetts may have been tainted. Defense lawyers have challenged convictions, as well as more recent charges against defendants that were based on the sullied evidence.
The lab where Dookhan worked was run by the Department of Public Health. State Police have since taken over drug testing in the state.
Law enforcement officials, from sheriffs to prosecutors to public defenders to state authorities investigating the scandal itself, said the Legislature will need to consider the costs of the fallout.
But law enforcement officials also said police will deal with the direct public safety issues generated by offenders returning to city streets.
“I think law enforcement is at the end of this chain, as far as impact,” said James Machado, executive director of the Massachusetts Police Association and a sergeant from Fall River.
Machado and Davis told legislators the state must develop and pay for reentry programs to help defendants adjust to life outside prison so that they do not return to a life of crime.
Davis and Aaron Tavares — career development coordinator at Youth Options Limited, a city-funded community agency — said the city has a model program to reintroduce inmates to work and housing opportunities, but that funding is needed to help those leaving incarceration as a result of the drug testing scandal. Davis estimated the costs at $12.6 million.
Anthony J. Benedetti — chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defender agency — said the state has only begun to see the fallout from the scandal. He said that Dookhan’s alleged misconduct at the drug testing lab in Jamaica Plain taints more than 190,000 cases, because the lack of oversight at the facility calls into question all of the testing conducted at the lab, even if Dookhan was not directly involved.
To cut costs and ensure the best interests of the criminal justice system, district attorneys should focus on the most violent offenders and dismiss other cases, Benedetti said.
“No one knows exactly how many cases this scandal will ultimately generate,” he said.