Pubdate: Wed, 19 Jun 2002
Source: Times Daily (Florence, AL)
Copyright: 2002 Times Daily
Author: Lisa Singleton-Rickman


FLORENCE - The regional forensic science laboratory in Florence is in 
jeopardy of closure from a too familiar problem - lack of state funding.

After digging out from a backlog of cases, the state Department of Forensic 
Sciences is again planning to cut its services because of the drop in 
funding, which equates regionally to about 60 percent.

State Forensics Director J.C. Upshaw Downs said his agency's budget will be 
about $2.25 million short for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, and cuts 
will have to be made. Downs, who resigned this week after more than two 
decades in the forensics field, will be gone as of Sept. 1.

The primary reason for the funding shortfall is less money coming in from 
penalties paid in drunken driving cases and criminal court cases.

"Unfortunately, we're funded by crime, and when crime goes down, our 
revenues go down," the director said. "It's not the fault of anyone or any 
particular person."

Downs said the savings would come in by having less buildings open.

Florence lab Director Selwyn Jones said his laboratory is earning its keep, 
and he doesn't want to leave.

The Florence lab mostly handles drug cases for law enforcement agencies 
throughout northwest Alabama.

"By not being here, there would definitely be a slow down in efficiency of 
all the agencies that depend on us," Jones said. "They'd be forced to take 
everything to Huntsville."

Florence police Deputy Chief Tony Logan said Jones and others at the area 
office have provided invaluable support for area law enforcement.

"We are seeing an increased amount of crystal meth and other drugs in this 
part of north Alabama," Logan said. "Taking away the lab here will result 
in a further backlog of cases."

Huntsville Forensics Lab Director Roger Morrison said satellite labs like 
the one in Florence are very valuable.

"It makes it much easier to get the cases turned in to have the lab right 
there and not have to travel for an hour-and-a-half one way," Morrison said.

In his 24 years in forensics, Morrison said he's seen plenty of cuts. And 
he says it's difficult to recover from cuts because, "we're down now to 
cutting out essentials."

Already, Morrison has a backlog of cases. Add Florence's cases and the 
problem greatly intensifies.

"It's an even greater backlog created, and people would have to wait longer 
and district attorneys would have to wait longer to get their cases to 
court," Morrison said.

He said his operation won't only be faced with a greater workload, but 
"we'd also be scaled back big-time."

"The people of Alabama have gotten a great deal from the crime laboratory 
systems," he said. "We've stretched those dollars as much as they can be 
stretched, and now we're being cut back to the point we can't do all the work."

Muscle Shoals police Chief Robert Evans said the cuts and the closure of 
the Florence lab will have an impact on all law enforcement agencies, 
especially those with small staffs of officers like in Cherokee, 
Littleville and Leighton.

"You're looking at a shift being disrupted when one or two of those 
officers have to take two and half hours out of an eight-hour shift to 
drive evidence to Huntsville," Evans said.

"This isn't evidence you can put in the mail."

Evans said the cuts will create delays in getting cases to courts, and said 
victims advocacy groups will "really get rightly up in arms when the 
process slows down."

He said the closing of the Florence lab will create "a ripple ... that will 
effect crime victims and their families, and that's the real tragedy here."

Downs has notified law enforcement officials across the state that 
scale-back options may include:

- -- In addition to closing regional labs in Florence, those in Tuscaloosa, 
Dothan and Auburn also would be closed, and employees from those four labs 
transferred to labs in the state's four biggest cities.

- -- Stopping the transportation of bodies to state crime labs for tests and 
turning over the task to local law enforcement agencies.

"That's a business we're not mandated to provide, but we've provided 
historically," Downs said. "The department can't afford that generosity."

- -- Reducing personnel, which is the department's biggest expense, by up to 
20 percent.

- -- Closing sections that investigate fingerprints, arsons, forged documents 
and trace evidence in carpet fibers.

The Department of Forensic Sciences gets about half of its budget from the 
state General Fund that is allocated by the Legislature. The department's 
General Fund allocation is going up from $7.4 million this fiscal year to 
$7.5 million next year.

The other half of the department's budget comes from federal grants and 
from court fines and fees, such as a $100 charge on each drunken driving case.

Those sources of revenue are going down, which means the department's total 
budget is dropping from nearly $16 million to $13.6 million.

Two years ago, the department was so strapped and so backlogged that Downs 
threatened to close the doors to new cases.

But additional federal funding, including money from the National Forensic 
Sciences Improvement Act, and $17.5 million from a state bond issue allowed 
the department to keep its doors open, increase its employees from 149 to 
179, and improve its labs, according to a report Downs gave the Legislature 
a year ago.

Randy Hillman, director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association, said 
he believes the system is "headed for a shutdown."

"Other states are on ad valorem taxes, which do not fluctuate with the 
economy, nor does it follow the rise or fall in criminal acts," Hillman said.

TimesDaily Senior Editor Mike Goens and the Associated Press contributed to 
this report.
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