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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Students warned of dangerous funding cuts to lab at center of state scandal

Published: November 2, 2012
Section: News

A Jamaica Plain lab that examined drug evidence in criminal trials was shut down on Aug. 30 amid concerns that a former chemist mishandled thousands of drug samples, potentially tainting convictions. Three Brandeis students, however, voiced concerns about the lab two years ago.

In September 2010, Ben Ostrow ’10, Rebecca Ratner ’10 and Kayley Wolf ’12, wrote a paper for their class “Advocacy for Public Policy” about how insufficient funding for the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute could lead to an event much like the one that recently occurred. State chemist Annie Dookhan resigned after it was discovered that she may have mishandled tens of thousands of samples, casting a pall over thousands of criminal cases involving potentially tainted evidence.

“Recently, the Massachusetts House of Representatives released its Fiscal Year 2011 budget outline. Among the many appropriations included, the Hinton State Lab Line Item (4516-1000) suffered a significant decrease in allocated funds,” the students wrote in their paper.

The Hinton State Laboratory Institute provides essential services to hospitals, clinics and other health care providers in Massachusetts, in addition to aiding schools, prisons and law enforcement. These services include Tuberculosis testing, biochemical analysis, preventable disease control, as well as environmental services that allow for Massachusetts residents to have clean drinking water, safe food and quality air. According to the paper, with budget cuts, these services would be affected and the health and safety of all Massachusetts citizens put at risk.

“Without proper funding, there are several very important aspects of HSLI that are at risk of being cut or impacted. The safety that all lab technicians and staff require to perform their jobs is at risk due to budget constraints, as well as HSLI’s screening and outreach services. Outreach workers go to those who have been tested through HSLI and provide them with their medication and support during their treatment process. Many of these integral people have lost their jobs, and even now, these employees are severely underpaid and overworked,” the students wrote.

The students attended budget hearings at the Massachusetts State House, meetings with State House staffers and press conferences for various organizations in order to obtain help for supporting the lab and similar programs, in addition to working toward increasing the amount of funding received.

The lab, however, did not receive increased funding, leading to the breakdown of the laboratory’s services.

Investigators have identified 1,141 Massachusetts inmates currently incarcerated in jails or prisons whose cases included evidence analyzed by Dookhan. At least 20 drug defendants have already been released or had bail reductions or sentence suspensions because of the chemist’s involvement and attorneys have said they are bracing for the possibility of dozens of legal challenges.

The student’s project was part of the Legal Studies program course Advocacy for Public Policy. The course, taught by Professor Melissa Stimell (LGLS), started in 2010 by the Brandeis International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life as an “initiative designed to encourage citizens to bring moral and ethical insights to the process of making and revising laws,” according to the center’s website. The course combines an investigation of the ethical dilemmas that arise in the process of lawmaking with hands-on advocacy work with entities seeking to reform laws or to propose new ones.

Advocacy for Public Policy will be available for enrollment in the spring 2013 semester.