Thanks to the CSI effect, even the simplest criminal cases can require DNA evidence to win a jury conviction. But for as long as we can remember, South Carolina’s State Law Enforcement Division’s forensic laboratory has had a huge DNA backlog.
The lab, charged by state law with processing evidence for police statewide, receives about 3,500 cases a year that need DNA testing, some with more than 100 samples to test. And it simply can’t keep up: The current backlog is about 8,000 cases, although SLED officials say more than 3,000 of those involve nonviolent crimes and poor-quality samples that likely wouldn’t yield any useful results.
The wait has prompted the sheriffs in Beaufort, Greenville, Richland and York counties to invest in their own DNA labs. (A Charleston lab is in the works.) The labs, which sometimes process evidence for other law enforcement agencies, have undoubtedly taken some of the pressure off SLED. So you can probably guess what comes next.
According to Columbia’s State newspaper, those sheriffs want state tax funding to expand their labs. As Beaufort Sheriff P.J. Tanner explained: “If we’re not sending these cases to the state for analysis, and we’re absorbing the responsibilities of three, four or five counties, I think the General Assembly needs to make sure those regional labs are being funded by the state.”
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Sheriffs say that with state funding, they could free up resources for SLED to work down its backlog.
The sheriffs are correct in thinking that the state is going to have to spend more money to get the backlog under control. But with all due respect, the idea of paying sheriffs to take over some of SLED’s duties is one of the worst suggestions we’ve heard in a long time.
The problem isn’t that SLED doesn’t know what it’s doing; sheriffs and police chiefs across the state praise the quality of its work. The problem isn’t that SLED is inefficient; the agency points to national numbers that show a typical DNA analyst works 110 cases per year, while SLED analysts complete 157. The problem is simply that SLED doesn’t have enough money to hire enough analysts to keep up with the growing demand.
The way to solve that problem is not to give state tax money to sheriff’s departments, which might or might not follow the same standards as SLED, and which likely would prioritize their own cases over cases from other agencies that could be more urgent. The way to solve the problem is to give more money to SLED, so it can hire the eight or 10 additional analysts it needs to work down the backlog and then keep up with new cases.
Even if there weren’t so many obvious advantages to having a single state agency do the work, we’d be reluctant to give additional state funding and responsibilities to sheriffs. South Carolina sheriffs are generally fond of expanding their operations, and their budgets, so it’s easy to understand why they would prefer this set-up. With their own labs, they could speed along their own investigations and enlarge their departments. But at the end of the day, sheriffs are only elected officials with no particular expertise in this field. The work is best left with SLED. .
If the taxpayers in some counties want their sheriffs to run DNA labs, they should do that. But they shouldn’t expect the rest of us to foot the bill. What we need to do is to fund a SLED lab that is large enough to handle all of the state’s needs in a timely manner.