Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Alabama State Budget Cuts Delay Forensic Tests for Criminal Investigations

I've posted several previous stories about how state and local government budget cuts are causing cutbacks to law enforcement, meaning fewer cops on the streets in some localities. But here is a new angle on that theme that I had not seen previously. Thanks to teevee shows like CSI, most people are familiar with the forensic science aspect of modern law enforcement and how it it used to successfully prosecute criminals who might have avoided conviction in an earlier era. You couldn't do a DNA match, for example, before DNA tests were even possible.

What people don't stop to consider, however, is that such tests are not cheap to properly perform, and that if there is no longer sufficient funding for them they will cease to be a tool in policeman's kit. Here is the Montgomery Advertiser with a story about just such a thing starting to happen down in Alabama:
The funding crisis in Alaba­ma's General Fund budget is be­ing felt in particular by law en­forcement agencies and district attorney's offices with delays in critical lab work results needed to investigate crimes and bring cases to trial.

This includes tests to de­termine if something found in a car or on a suspect is an illegal substance like cocaine or marijua­na or contains legal ingredients like talcum powder or pencil shavings. Also being delayed are tests to determine how a person died and those that show if ar­rested drivers were under the in­fluence of alcohol or drugs.

State Forensic Sciences Direc­tor Michael Sparks said his agen­cy's funding has been cut 33 per­cent in the past three years and there are 27 fewer employees than in 2009.

He said the funding shortfall is causing backlogs, particularly in drug tests and on toxicology tests that determine cause of death.

The agency has long suffered from budget shortfalls, but Sparks said they had $14 million to spend three years ago and the agency had eliminated most back­logs. Then the recession hit and in the past three years, Sparks has watched the agency's budget drop almost $5 million a year. Labs have been closed and some key services have been dropped, such as providing transporta­tion to ship bodies to labora­tories.

"We have to investigate everything that is brought to us," Sparks said. "If someone is found dead, they want to know what happened."

Blount County District At­torney Pamela Casey said quick results on a toxicology test can mean whether a case is successfully prose­cuted.

"I can't prosecute cases until I have a toxicology re­port in my hands," Casey said.

She said the delays are causing grand jury proceed­ings to be delayed, slowing down how long it takes for indictments to be brought against suspects.

Casey said she had a drawer in her office in Oneonta that contains about 700 cases that need to go be­fore a grand jury.

She said in many of those cases the laboratory work has not been completed.

She said the state's district attorneys have already been told more budget cuts are coming in the session of the Legislature that begins in February.
Of course, law enforcement was already dealing with the so-called "CSI Effect," as explained by Wikipedia:
The CSI effect, also known as the CSI syndrome and the CSI infection, is any of several ways in which the exaggerated portrayal of forensic science on crime television shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation influences public perception. The term most often refers to the belief that jurors have come to demand more forensic evidence in criminal trials, thereby raising the effective standard of proof for prosecutors. While this belief is widely held among American legal professionals, some studies have suggested that crime shows are unlikely to cause such an effect, although frequent CSI viewers may place a lower value on circumstantial evidence. As technology improves and becomes more prevalent throughout society, people may also develop higher expectations for the capabilities of forensic technology.

There are several other manifestations of the CSI effect. Greater public awareness of forensic science has also increased the demand for forensic evidence in police investigations, boosting workloads for crime laboratories.
Increased demand has run smack dab into budgetary realities. So in other words, you could say that we are now reaching the point of Peak Criminal Forensics.

1 comment:

  1. Reminds me of the Woody Allen quote "life does not imitate art, it imitates bad TV".