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Crime Laboratories Nationwide Feel the Pinch
Susan Zucker, Ph.D., Director of Technology & Distance Education

Background

Crime labs across the country are feeling pinched financially as states continue to experience budget shortfalls. Cutbacks in lab budgets can lead to layoffs and longer backlogs for DNA testing and other forensic work. Case investigations can be compromised. For example, critical forensic testing could be omitted because there aren’t funds to conduct the tests.1

Other examples of cutback effects: The California legislature has proposed cutting the state’s crime lab budget in half. This could result in the state crime lab charging local agencies to conduct forensic tests on evidence collected from crime scenes. Federal funds are expected to help the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office address backlogs of untested rape kits that compromise public safety. The evidence gleaned potentially could overturn wrongful convictions.2

Medical examiners’ offices around the country are cutting back on autopsy schedules due to budget shortfalls. This has the potential to hamper investigations.3

Evidence preservation is vital to overturning wrongful convictions and locating the real perpetrators of crimes. In Mississippi a new law requires that evidence from some crimes be stored but in these tight economic times, local law enforcement agencies are concerned that the capacity to store crime scene evidence and comply with the law does not exist.4

Budgets and funding sources

I interviewed two crime lab directors and one director of a state department of forensic science, a laboratory system serving local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, commonwealth’s attorneys, and members of the judicial system. With respect to budget cuts, two out of three reported that their budgets had been cut in the last five years. The lab in Los Angeles is funded primarily through general County tax dollars, but it is supplemented with local sales tax revenues, court fines and fees, and federal grants.5 The lab from Virginia is funded by general funds appropriated from state revenue by the General Assembly of Virginia and approved by the Governor. Funding is supplemented by federal grant funds, generally through the National Institute of Justice (NIJ).6 The lab director from Florida reported that its laboratory budget had not been cut. The crime lab in Palm Beach, Florida is funded predominantly by ad valorem and ad valorem equivalent dollars as a division within the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office budget.7

At a time when there are budget cuts for crime labs in many regions across the country, Wisconsin’s Governor Walker is poised to “grant the state Department of Justice additional money for the state Crime Laboratory and to boost Attorney General Van Hollen’s initiative to prosecute online sexual predators to ‘make sure that our children are protected from those who would do them harm.’”8 Specific dollar figures were not immediately available.

Cost saving measures

In Palm Beach County, Florida, cost-savings measures have been implemented since 2008 to help increase the efficiency of the laboratories as well as reduce costs. This is accomplished by following the measures outlined below:
  • The Forensic Biology Unit has applied for and received formula and/or competitive grants from the NIJ on an annual basis. In addition, Coverdell formula grant funding has been available. The Forensic Biology Unit has implemented a case submission policy restricting the number of samples that may be submitted for DNA analysis. The number of samples is dependent on the type of case investigated.
  • The toxicology and chemistry units were combined under a single manager.
    • The managerial structure was re-organized to streamline duties so that the Crime Laboratory was divided into two Divisions: Technical Services and Forensic Sciences.
      • The Latent Print, Evidence and Crime Scene Unit Managers report directly to the Technical Services Manager.
      • The Forensic Biology, Firearms, Quality Assurance and Chemistry/ Toxicology Managers report directly to the Forensic Sciences Division Manager.
    • The Forensic Sciences Division (FSD) Manager is also the Crime Laboratory Director. That position must also manage one of the FSD Units and is ultimately responsible for the accreditation of all Crime Laboratory Units.9

In Virginia, total staff numbers are being reduced by not filling all vacancies, eliminating virtually all discretionary professional development training/travel, reducing training programs offered to law enforcement, and deferring replacement of instruments and other equipment by extending service agreements.10 In Los Angeles County, the crime lab's parent agency has cut over $180 million from its budget. This has been done while avoiding layoffs or work furloughs but all overtime funds and a significant amount of funds for supplies and equipment have been lost. Additionally, the department has cut ALL non-reimbursed overtime to zero. This requires sworn personnel assigned to some areas of the laboratory to work at least one 8-hr shift per week in another assignment. That is effectively a 20% reduction in workforce in some areas (CSI, latent prints, polygraph, and toolmarks/firemarks). These cuts are affecting the ability to keep up with orders and supplies and is taking a “human toll” on staff. For example, pending latent print comparison cases have increased over 200% in just the last twelve months.11

While many avenues of cost-cutting are available, laying people off seems to be the least popular option. Rather, the strategies used to cut expenditures described above focus mainly on forensic and business processes. This has the potential to affect negatively the legal system and those who navigate through it.

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1  Innocence Project Blog. Last found on April 12, 2011 at: http://www.innocenceproject.org/Content/Shrinking_State_Budgets_and_Crime_Labs.php
2  Id.
3  Id.
4  Id.
5  Interview with Crime Laboratory Director, Los Angeles County, CA. via email in April, 2011.
6  Interview with Director of the Virginia Department of Forensic Science (DFS), Commonwealth of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth via email in April, 2011.
7  Interview with Crime Laboratory Director, Palm Beach County, FL. via email in April, 2011.
8  Innocence Project Blog. Last found on April 12, 2011 at: http://www.innocenceproject.org/Content/Shrinking_State_Budgets_and_Crime_Labs.php
9  Interview with Crime Laboratory Director, Palm Beach County, FL. via email in April, 2011.
10  Interview with Director of the Virginia Department of Forensic Science (DFS), Commonwealth of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth via email in April, 2011.
11  Interview with Crime Laboratory Director, Los Angeles County, CA. via email in April, 2011.