BOSTON (AP) - Law enforcement officials testifying at a legislative hearing Wednesday warned that the release of convicted drug offenders as a result of the drug testing scandal in a former state lab could lead to a spike in violent crime.
Annie Dookhan, a former chemist at the Department of Public Health lab in Boston, is accused of manipulating drug samples involving some 34,000 people over a nine-year period. The state launched a massive review of those cases, and some individuals have already been released from prison on bail as they await possible new trials.
James Machado, executive director of the Massachusetts Police Association, testified that some of those returning to the street could resort to violence while trying to reclaim former territories in the drug trade.
"This isn't Wal-Mart moving in to take out the mom-and-pop operations. Those people who are being released are going back to the communities and looking to take back their turf, their trade that they are accustomed to," Machado said.
Representatives of the Legislature's Public Safety, Public Health and Post Audit and Oversight Committees conducted the oversight hearing, the last of three to examine the state public health agency in the wake of the drug lab crisis, as well as the deadly U.S. outbreak of fungal meningitis, which has been linked to a Framingham company regulated by the state.
Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis said of the nearly 160 people that had been released statewide so far, 110 were from Boston and eight of those who returned to the city have since been re-arrested for other alleged crimes.
"There is also a significant public safety concern that there could be an increase in drug-related home invasions, turf wars and other types of violence," Davis told the lawmakers.
Boston officials have been proactive in their approach to the crisis, Davis said, by sending teams to meet with inmates before their release and make them aware that a wide range of programs and services are available to ease their transition and help them avoid any return to crime. He said the fact that only eight have been re-arrested so far may be a sign that the strategy is working.
Boston Mayor Thomas Menino has estimated that it will cost the city some $15 million to deal with the fallout from the drug lab scandal.
Gov. Deval Patrick's administration has asked for $30 million to cover the initial costs of the crisis for state agencies, law enforcement, the courts and public defenders. The Legislature is not expected to take up the request until next month.
Robert Mulligan, chief justice of the state's trial court, urged lawmakers at Wednesday's hearing to consider funding more chemists in the future to relieve chronic staff shortages.
"Even before this alleged misconduct, the Hinton drug lab was woefully understaffed," Mulligan said. "The number of chemists that were there could not stay current with the demand."
The lab was shut down in August after state police took over as part of a state budget directive and discovered that the problems in Dookhan cases went beyond some isolated irregularities.
Dookhan has pleaded not guilty to charges of obstruction of justice and falsifying her academic credentials.
Mulligan said the courts have taken steps to control some of the costs associated with the crisis. For example, more than 300 drug defendants have appeared at bail hearings through videoconferencing, saving the expense of transporting them from prisons to the courts, he said.
Lawmakers said the oversight hearings could produce legislation aimed at preventing any future repeat of the crisis, though no specific proposals have been made yet.
"It's very clear that we have more questions than we have answers to," said Rep. Harold Naughton, House chairman of the Public Safety panel.