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Crime lab conundrum

September 15, 2006

TWO YEARS AGO, CALIFORNIA voters made the state a pioneer in DNA crime-busting by passing Proposition 69. The measure has already proved a godsend for crime victims and cops, producing quick arrests and reviving cold cases. It also has demonstrated yet again the folly of legislating by ballot box.

Proposition 69 requires convicted felons, some misdemeanor offenders and those arrested on rape or murder charges to provide a sample of their DNA, usually taken via cheek swab. Those samples are sent to a state lab in Richmond for entry into a criminal database to check against DNA evidence from crime scenes. The problem, as Times staff writer Henry Weinstein revealed Thursday, is that the massive increase in DNA samples has overwhelmed the crime lab. Though more than 285,000 samples have been added to the database, there are more than 287,000 yet to be processed, grinding justice to a crawl.

Under Proposition 69, the funding to pay for processing all these new samples was supposed to come from the criminals themselves, through an increase of $1 on every $10 misdemeanor fine. This was expected to produce $25 million a year for the state "penalty pot," but it has only yielded $7.5 million.

The reasons are varied and hard to pin down. Misdemeanor fines are a highly unreliable source of money, yet they're already used to fund a variety of state programs, most of which are underfunded. Sometimes the criminals are too poor to pay, and sometimes the counties are either too inefficient in collecting or too stingy in passing along the money.

Whatever the cause, the problem stands to get a lot worse soon. Starting in 2009, everyone arrested for a felony -- not just those convicted -- must give a DNA sample. Not only is this an invasion of privacy that could lead to abuses such as police arresting innocent people to get a sample, it is also a logistical time bomb.

One problem at the state crime lab is a staffing shortfall of 34 vacant positions, which officials blame on low starting salaries of $3,100 a month. On Thursday, Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton and county Sheriff Lee Baca called on Sacramento to increase funding and salaries to clear the backlog. Once again, legislators are being asked to throw more tax money at a ballot initiative that advertised less.

The DNA backlog is like L.A. County's Twin Towers jail, which cost $373 million in bond money yet has never been used as planned for lack of money, or like those stem cell research facilities that 2004's Proposition 71 were supposed to finance. As voters get set to consider 13 state ballot measures and 29 local measures sprinkled throughout L.A. County, they should keep in mind the unintended consequences of hurried measures that hype popular ends without providing the practical means.

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