- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 15, 2004

RICHMOND — The Virginia State Crime Commission yesterday recommended substantially more funding than Gov. Mark Warner proposed for reducing the backlog of evidence awaiting forensic testing.

The commission wants the state to hire an additional 26 forensic scientists and five other Division of Forensic Science employees at a cost of $2.1 million.

Mr. Warner said Tuesday that his proposed budget would include $1.1 million to hire 17 additional forensic scientists who would analyze controlled substances, DNA, latent prints and firearm and tool marks.

The commission also recommended raising the forensic scientists’ salaries 26 percent to better compete with higher-paying private and federal government labs. The commission cited one forensic scientist who left to take a job paying $80,000, about $30,000 more than his state job.

Mr. Warner did not propose salary increases.

A study by the commission staff found that the average time for completing forensic testing more than doubled from 39 days in 1999 to 95 days this year. DNA cases take about eight months.

Kim Hamilton, the commission’s executive director, said many cases have had to be continued or dropped and some prisoners are being held in jail longer because of testing delays.

“Not funding the lab on the front end is not saving money, it’s costing money on the back end,” Miss Hamilton told commission members.

According to the study, the Division of Forensic Science’s requests for additional funds were mostly rejected while its caseload increased by 17.8 percent over the past five years. Requests for DNA tests increased 111 percent during that time.

Since Jan. 1, 2000, the division has lost 36 percent of its staff. The study found that the lab needs 56 additional scientists to handle the workload but can take only 26 because of space and training constraints.

Lynchburg Commonwealth’s Attorney William C. Petty, a member of the commission, said police sometimes contribute to the problem by submitting evidence for testing in minor cases. At his suggestion, commission staffers and lab officials will develop guidelines for making the best use of resources.

Mr. Warner and the commission both recommended $1.2 million to expand the Eastern Regional Forensic Lab in Norfolk, which is operating at capacity; to acquire land for a new Northern Virginia lab; and to create a cutting-edge mitochondrial DNA testing program.

Mitochondrial DNA testing, which was used to identify victims of the September 11 attacks, is more sensitive than conventional nuclear DNA testing. For example, mitochondrial DNA testing can identify the source of a human hair even if the root is missing.

The commission also recommended removing the forensic lab from oversight of the Department of Criminal Justice Services and making it an independent agency governed by its own board.

The General Assembly will consider the recommendations during the 46-day session that begins Jan. 12.

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