innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Editorials Fund the Crime Lab

This article appeared in the Contra Costa Times on September 26, 2006:

Editorials Fund the crime lab

ANYONE WHO HAS SEEN the hit television drama "CSI" knows that DNA samples are often the key to unlocking a tough case. And that analysis of those samples can be churned out in a matter of minutes. Right? Well, not exactly. Not in real life, anyway.

Despite having a clear mandate from voters, the state crime lab in Richmond is literally years behind and it is backlogged by more than 250,000 DNA samples.

The backlog is getting worse. To offer perspective as to the magnitude of the problem, officials said that at its current pace the lab would take 21/2 years to clear the backlog, providing there were no new samples added. That last little caveat, of course, is a fantasy because the lab, on average, is taking in 20,000 new cases a month.

In 2004, voters overwhelming supported Proposition 69, which was supposed to make California the nation's leader in using DNA as a crime-solving tool.

The proposition requires that all convicted felons, certain misdemeanor offenders and all rape and murder suspects give up DNA samples. The samples are tested and uploaded into what is called CODIS, the combined DNA index system administered by the FBI.

The idea behind the system is that once loaded into CODIS, these DNA samples can help identify or, for that matter, eliminate suspects. More than 285,000 samples have been loaded into CODIS and the program yielded 2,670 hits. That may not sound like much, but to the victims and their families in these cases this is a godsend.

The bitter irony is that we have the technology and the support of the people, but experts say that funding is lacking dramatically.

One of the primary causes of the problem is that the Richmond lab pays technicians much lower wages than similar positions in police departments around the state. Currently there are 34 technician vacancies in the Richmond lab.

The program was supposed to have paid for itself because counties were supposed to turn over $1 of every $10 in misdemeanor fines to a penalty fund that was expected to rise to about $25 million.

But for unexplained reasons, some counties aren't contributing and the penalty pot is only at about $7.5 million. That is unacceptable. The voters passed this measure and the counties should be made to turn over the money. If they do not, the attorney general should demand to know why they haven't.

Instead, the Legislature this year allocated another $1 for every $10 for the program. That will help, but only if the state is willing to enforce it.

Meanwhile, thousands of cases languish and many criminals remain free, while some innocents sit in jail. If state government is seriously interested in fighting crime, resolving this mess should be a top priority.

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