Sharp increases in evidence testing turnaround times have led the state auditor to recommend staffing increases and the implementation of fees at the North Dakota State Crime Lab in Bismarck.
The lab has seen a 55% increase in turnaround time, or 75 days, for DNA tests and an 84% increase, or 26 days, for drug chemistry tests since 2014, State Auditor Joshua Gallion said in a recently released performance audit of the lab for the two-year period ending June 30, 2018.
“The state’s criminal justice system relies on the scientific support provided by the State Crime Lab,” Gallion said. “When the testing is backlogged, the entire judicial system moves that much slower.”
The lab’s workload has increased while its full-time staff numbers have decreased since 2018 cuts ordered by the Legislature for the attorney general's office, which oversees the lab. The agency decided which positions to cut based on "internal evaluation of resources and business needs," according to the report.
The reduction included the elimination of one evidence technician, forcing the lab to pull a forensic scientist away from testing to help log incoming evidence. The result is slower test times and the use of a higher-paid scientist to perform the duties of an evidence technician, the report states.
Gallion recommended charging fees for services, which the lab does not currently do but which is allowed under state law. He also recommended charging a fee when employees are subpoenaed to leave the office to testify in criminal cases. Each hour of testimony provided by a lab employee required 15 hours of time away from the lab, according to the report. Testimony could remain free of charge if done by interactive video, for which the lab is equipped.
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The attorney general’s office was unable to hire a temporary evidence technician in the 2017-19 biennium, but it will review that option for 2019-21 and will “likely hire” a temporary technician, according to the agency's response in the report. The 2019 Legislature approved the hiring of an additional forensic scientist.
The attorney general's office will weigh the possibility of a fee schedule for services, but “the office’s recipients are political subdivisions which also have tight budgets,” the report said.
Gallion said the report is part of a two-year operational audit required of the attorney general's office. He credited Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and his staff for their cooperation.
“When we did the exit interview, all of the suggestions and recommendations that we provided to them, they already have solutions that they are planning or implementing,” Gallion said.
Attorney general spokeswoman Liz Brocker on Tuesday declined comment on the audit.