County jailers are failing to routinely perform DNA swabs on suspected felons. The state crime lab isn’t processing and uploading the profiles in a timely manner. And criminals who might otherwise be caught are going free. How many? No one knows.
That’s the upshot from a Wednesday report by The Post and Courier’s Seanna Adcox, who found lax compliance with a mandatory state DNA collection law that took effect in 2013.
That’s a problem law enforcement and the Legislature need to fix, even if it means fining counties for noncompliance and expanding state funding for DNA processing. There’s good evidence it will pay off.
A 2017 study done at Stanford University found that state DNA databases “deter crime by profiled offenders, reduce crime rates and are more cost-effective than traditional law enforcement tools.” And the bigger the database, the better the results. A similar study showed that simply adding offenders’ DNA profile to a database reduced recidivism by 43 percent, presumably because they know they are more likely to be caught in the future with a DNA “fingerprint” on file.
Statewide, about 28,300 samples have been collected since 2013, but compliance has been spotty and uneven. Pickens County submitted just six samples, while Horry County submitted 4,300. Some counties haven’t sent any, according Ms. Adcox’s report.
Some sheriffs apparently weren’t aware they were out of compliance. “We thought it was getting done,” Edgefield County sheriff’s Capt. Chris Wash told The Post and Courier. The state law mandating that counties supply DNA samples was passed in 2008 but didn’t take effect until 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was constitutional and the state began funding it.
Collecting DNA samples isn’t complicated, and sheriffs should be able to correct the problem at the county level by ensuring jailers are doing their jobs and shipping the samples to the state crime lab.
But the state crime lab has a backlog of 1,300 samples and the average processing time is 85 days. The head of the lab, Maj. Todd Hughey, acknowledged the potential for a criminal to go free because of the deficiencies but said, “It’s like an emergency room. We have to prioritize cases coming through the door.”
The Legislature is considering a $54 million budget request for a new crime lab, but funding for hiring an additional DNA analyst and buying DNA test kits totaling about $800,000 was eliminated from the budget sent to the House floor last week. And federal funding for three other DNA analysts is drying up, according to State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel. Nevertheless, Mr. Keel said he would seek cuts elsewhere if needed and manage demands for DNA testing the best he could.
Building and maintaining the state’s DNA database should be a high priority, and the Legislature should find the funding for processing and uploading profiles. And if counties don’t keep up their end of the bargain, the Legislature should compel them to cooperate.