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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Prop. 15 Loss Dims Hopes for Overhaul of Crime Lab

Funding: Measure's defeat means the state will not raise money the county had hoped for to expand its facility. The added space is needed to qualify for full accreditation.

March 13, 2000|MARGARET TALEV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Voters' defeat last week of Proposition 15, which would have raised $220 million statewide for new police crime labs, is a blow to the Ventura County Sheriff's Department's plans to overhaul its crime lab.

The department was hoping to take advantage of some of the bond proceeds to help pay for a lab expansion with an estimated cost of at least $12.5 million.

The expansion, from 9,000 square feet to an estimated 35,000 square feet, is required for the lab to receive full accreditation.

With accreditation, the county would stop sending out to private labs for costly and time-consuming DNA testing it already has the capability to do far more cheaply and quickly in-house.

The county already has most of the equipment it needs for sophisticated testing, but is required to have a larger space in which to work to meet accreditation standards.

The state has mandated that all local crime labs be fully accredited by 2004.

Sheriff Bob Brooks said he and other officials sensed the ballot initiative was likely to fail, in part because voters know the state is sitting on a huge surplus of funds.

"The state surplus is now approaching $9 billion," the sheriff said. "They feel if the money's there it ought to just be taken out of existing dollars and I understand that."

So Brooks and other sheriffs throughout the state are shifting immediately to a backup plan, lobbying the Legislature and Gov. Gray Davis to free up some of the surplus to accomplish the ballot measure's goals. The California State Sheriff's Assn. is organizing the effort, and Brooks hopes to get area lawmakers on board.

The crime lab serves not only the Sheriff's Department, but also all police agencies inside the county, as well as the district attorney's office and the California Highway Patrol. In addition to DNA testing, the lab performs toxicology tests for the coroner and can test for ballistics, fingerprints, fibers found at crime scenes and the presence of alcohol and drugs in the bloodstream.

Sheriff's Cmdr. Dick Purnell, who oversees the department's crime lab, said getting full accreditation would enable the county to use DNA testing more frequently and get faster results.

In-house testing generally costs about $65 per sample, with results available in 10 days. Sending testing to private labs costs from $800 to $1,800 and can take as long as four or five months. Another alternative, sending DNA samples to state-run labs, can take as long as a year because of backlogs, Purnell said.

If the sheriff's lab lacks full accreditation four years from now, toxicology tests on corpses would need to be sent out. The costs could rise as high as $500,000 annually, Purnell said.

Although the funding is in limbo, Brooks' office is preparing to sign a contract for a consultant to conduct a needs assessment. That review might better pin down expansion costs and help leaders decide whether they should expand the current facility or build a new one.

Brooks said that despite a public perception that his department is well-funded--in part because of a half-cent sales tax that law enforcement gets from Proposition 172--there is no way it can absorb a $12.5-million hit. And with the county's strained finances, the department cannot ask the Board of Supervisors for that kind of help, the sheriff said.

"The state's the only place the money can come from," he said.

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