ATLANTA — Public safety officials requested budget increases for medical-examiner salaries, indestructible prisons and a doubling of the state morgue.

A subcommittee of legislative budget writers got the tally Wednesday in testimony from state corrections and law-enforcement agency heads.

A 12-percent pay raise for physicians who conduct forensic autopsies for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation will help the agency stay competitive with salaries in neighboring states and stem the loss of experienced pathologists, according to GBI Director Vernon Keenan. Similar raises for agents and scientists over a three-year period did the same trick, he said.

“With the pay raises we got, that has stopped the hemorrhage of agents,” he told members of the Public Safety Subcommittee on Appropriations.

Finding and keeping forensic pathologists has been tough, forcing the GBI to close regional crime labs in Augusta and Moultrie when it couldn’t find replacements for physicians who retired or quit.

“New doctors do not want to go to a single-doctor office. They want to be in a metropolitan area where they work with a team of doctors,” Keenan said.

Having colleagues around provides the opportunity to consult with others on cases as well as relief from being on call constantly. The GBI has 10 doctors in its Atlanta headquarters and two in the Savannah crime lab, for which it is seeking $1.1 million to design a new building.

The GBI also wants $6.68 million to double its morgue to contain 100 bodies.

The Department of Corrections also needs more money, some to give pay raises to guards in the most dangerous prisons, and $30 million to “harden” mid-level security facilities. That includes replacing cell furnishings with heavy-gauge steel, bolting the beds to the walls and other fixtures that can’t be ripped apart and turned into a weapon by gang members, according to Corrections Commissioner Brian Owens.

“We do that due to the prevalence of gangs,” he said. “Gangs are rising in Georgia prisons because they’re rising on the streets.”
Reforms that relaxed sentences for non-violent crimes have reduced the number of new prisoners each year, but those now behind bars are more likely to be violent.

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