SLED workforce in growth spurt after years of cuts
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina’s law enforcement agency will soon collect DNA samples from people when they’re arrested for a felony — rather than post-conviction — four years after legislators passed a law requiring the state’s DNA database to expand.
A $10 million budget boost to the State Law Enforcement Division makes it possible, in a year that will also bring the fastest ramp-up ever to the agency’s workforce.
The 2012-13 budget, which took effect in July, calls for SLED to hire nearly 90 people: 49 agents; eight forensic scientists for the DNA lab; a dozen people each to manage its computers and criminal records database; and seven assistants.
That increases SLED’s ranks by nearly 20 percent. Still, its workforce and budget remain below the 2008 high, when the Great Recession led to deep budget cuts.
SLED Chief Mark Keel said his agency has never before tried to hire so many people in a single year, but he’s grateful for the boost. Keel hopes to have all the positions filled by early 2013.
“I never dreamed this year that we would be as successful as we were in the Legislature,” said Keel, who took the agency’s helm last summer, after a stint as Department of Public Safety director.
Between 2008, when he left as interim chief, and his return, SLED’s budget had shrunk by more than one-third. But lawmakers assured him they would try to give him the money to put SLED back together.
Keel said he told lawmakers, “We can’t keep cutting public safety.” Evidently, they agreed.
In 2008, legislators passed a law requiring DNA samples to be collected from people upon arrest on felony charges. The law set a 2009 tentative start date but specified that implementation would depend on funding.
In the years since, the agency purchased equipment as it could with federal grants to help automate the process. But not until the budget passed in July did the ramp-up really began.
“We’re excited,” said Maj. Todd Hughey, SLED’s lab director. “It’s easier to plan and prepare when there’s money in the checkbook.”
Fortunately, he added, the technology has improved in the interim, making the work less expensive and faster.
Of the eight new hires for the DNA lab, two will work on the database side, which currently processes samples taken at prisons after conviction. Processing of upon-arrest DNA samples will likely start in six months. Preparation includes training the staff at jails across 46 counties, said Lt. David McClure, SLED’s DNA database supervisor.
Exactly how much the database workload will increase is unknown. The estimate is between 15,000 and 20,000 additional samples yearly, Hughey said.
That brings the possibility of a backlog, a problem that has for years plagued the other side of the DNA lab, which processes crime scene evidence.
Its total backlog stands at nearly 5,000 cases, though nonviolent property crimes make up 80 percent of those, Hughey said.
Keel has directed the lab to focus on processing evidence from violent crimes. Property crime cases with the best chance of identifying someone — those with biological evidence — are being outsourced to out-of-state labs.
The overwhelming majority of property crime cases outsourced so far have produced a hit, Hughey said. That means the biological DNA either identifies an offender already in criminal databases or matches evidence collected at another crime scene, often linking crimes across jurisdictions.
“At that point, we put agencies together and tell them, `Look, we don’t know who it is, but the same person who committed this burglary committed this one,”’ Keel said.
The additional hires won’t eliminate the backlog, partly because of an explosion in requests for forensic analysis, as juries accustomed to TV crime shows demand DNA evidence. In 2008, law enforcement agencies across the state submitted 231 cases monthly to SLED’s lab. That’s grown to 371 cases monthly as of July, Hughey said.
The 2012-13 state budget provides six forensic scientists, while a federal grant is providing six more specifically to whittle down the violent crime backlog. That’s still below the 2008 high. Plus, required training takes between six and 18 months, so it could be 2014 before those new hires are analyzing evidence.
Hughey said the backlog doesn’t necessarily mean law enforcement agencies must wait months for results. The cases aren’t worked in order, he said.
“A case that comes in today may take precedence over something that happened to weeks ago,” he said. “If they’ve got a pressing case, all it takes is a phone call and asking us to prioritize, and we do what we can to get it in that week’s analysis.”