When I first saw the story of the LA Sheriff's decision, I wondered if this was a tactical move - threatening to eliminate a popular and needed function in order to sway public opinion in favor of keeping less defensible parts of his budget. But the cuts to statewide crime labs are a serious proposal in the state legislative budget, which escalates the dilemma to a new level.
Hundreds of police departments and district attorneys' offices in 47 of the state's 58 counties currently rely on the state lab to test their crime scene evidence. The other 11 counties, mostly concentrated in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas, have their own labs to test forensic evidence.
But many law enforcement agencies in small or rural counties doubt they'll be able to afford the new charges, which are likely to run about $215 an hour. If the agencies can't pay, the lab will have to close some of its branches and lay off some of its scientists, said Jill Spriggs, the lab's bureau chief.
The agencies also could be forced to shelve thousands of DNA samples, bullet casings and other pieces of evidence used to identify violent criminals. There are already more than 350,000 untested DNA samples nationwide, according to federal government statistics.
Ultimately, some police chiefs said they might have to choose: pay to process evidence, or lose more cops on the streets. More than 1,000 police officers were eliminated statewide in the past year. ...
The proposed cut could go into effect between July 1 and Jan. 1, she said. It's unclear if it would be permanent.
I still think, though, that there's a bit of budgetary gamesmanship going on regarding how these issues are portrayed by the media and public officials. Much of the volume for crime lab work isn't for DNA testing but for drug cases, but it's money for processing rape kits getting cut first? That makes little public safety sense. If you're forced to prioritize, surely that function would be a lot farther down the budget cut list?
RELATED: Those interested in tracking the struggles of California's justice system amidst declining budgets should visit the law-prof-run blog, California Correctional Crisis, as well as another good looking blog I ran across recently, Governing through Crime.