Sidestepping crime lab delays

Jan. 07, 2014 @ 05:37 PM

A year ago, the Durham Crime Cabinet endorsed the idea of allocating local dollars to speed up work at the State Bureau of Investigation’s overwhelmed and bogged down crime lab.

The idea briefly received some favorable response from the City Council and County Commissioners, who would have had to split the cost of contracting with the SBI to add technicians to work specifically on Durham cases.

But in a difficult budget-making environment, the idea never got past the discussion stage.

Now the notion has resurfaced, at least with the commissioners.  

The need is acute. The average turnaround time at the state lab “exceeds six months, which is a problem,” Deputy County Manager Lee Worsley told the commissioners Monday. 

The upshot is justice that is at the very least slowed.  Trials often are delayed multiple times while prosecutors await the analysis of blood and drug samples sent to the state lab.  Defendants awaiting trial who can’t make bail spend extra time in jail – especially galling for a suspect who may ultimately be found not guilty. And every day of incarceration awaiting trial runs up county costs.

Contracting with the state seemed a more reasonable idea to county officials Monday than another alternative that’s been under consideration – using grant money to set up Durham’s own lab. While a potential grant would provide some start-up costs, the city and county local governments would have to pay to renovate space and would be responsible for about $250,000 a year in operating costs. By contrast, contracting with the SBI would cost an estimated $186,000 a year.

Hooking up with the state is not without its negatives as officials worried this week and last year as well.  When the City Council discussed the potential contract last year, Councilman Eugene Brown worried it was essentially bailing out a state government that was failing to meet its responsibilities.

“The leadership at the state level is not there,” he said last January, “putting the burden back on cities and counties.”

The state has in fact stepped up since then, with the General Assembly last year funding an additional 19 positions in the lab. Assessing the impact of that new capability would figure into any exploration with the state on a cost-sharing arrangement.

Commissioner Fred Foster, among others, worried that it would be difficult to insure that the SBI did not divert Durham’s designated technicians for some project. “There’s no way to tell them not to use our folks for what they want to have done,” Foster observed.

As city and county governments began work in earnest on budgets for the 2014-2015 fiscal year, we’re glad the question of how to speed up crime lab work is on the table. There are risks and potential benefits with every possibility under scrutiny, but the bottom line is our judicial system will function more efficiently if we navigate a route around the crime lab’s backlog.