Once complete, a new DNA lab at the York County Sheriff's Office will help York County law enforcement agencies solve more crimes in less time, thereby enhancing crime prevention, sheriff's office officials say.
Expected to cost about $540,000 for equipment, facilities and personnel, the lab will allow local agencies to process DNA evidence locally instead of sending it to the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, which sometimes has long turn-around times, officials say.
Those wait times stem from SLED prioritizing violent crimes over non-violent crimes such as burglaries, said Jennifer Timmons, SLED spokeswoman.
But for a York County resident whose house has been robbed, finding the suspect is definitely a priority, said Major Hudgins of the Sheriff's Office.
York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant said York County's DNA lab will be set up to handle all crimes, whether violent or not.
"We can't afford to let crime go unsolved for six months or a year waiting" to get evidence back, said Bryant. Waiting can often mean "(letting) the bad guys go free," he said.
Bryant said for a "horrendous" case, he can "personally call SLED" and they'll turn evidence around overnight. "The flip side is you've got other major cases and you can't get them back. You get in line," he said.
One of few
Only three local agencies in South Carolina have their own DNA labs, and two are new and not yet operational.
SLED accepts evidence from more than 300 agencies across 46 counties. In 2009, almost 3,000 DNA cases were submitted, said Todd Hughey, forensics services laboratory director for SLED.
Complexity of a case and incomplete requests are just two reasons why processing might take longer than expected, Hughey said.
The state lab's 2,300-case backlog, split between violent and non-violent crimes, also slows things down.
"We understand that a lot of what local agencies are concerned about are property crimes," which have a financial impact on a community, Hughey said.
While SLED prioritizes cases of bodily injury such as homicides and sexual assaults, SLED tries to maintain a caseload of around 40 percent property crimes.
Still, sometimes it takes a year to get to a less serious property crime, Hughey said.
That's time a criminal is running loose, local officials say.
To improve response time, Hughey said federal money has allowed SLED to outsource some cases, hire new staff, and pay for overtime.
This year SLED has reduced its backlog by 10 percent, he said.
"It's a move in the right direction to meet the needs of the state," he said.
When asked if he felt local labs would lessen the burden on SLED, Hughey said they can be effective, "as long as they're doing quality work."
How a local agency structures its lab will determine whether it can handle more serious cases, Hughey said.
Building the DNA lab
Located at the Moss Justice Center, the lab will be a part of the county forensics team. The Sheriff's Office has ordered some equipment and hopes to begin assembling the lab in a couple of months. Sheriff Bryant said it should be running sometime next year.
The most time-consuming part of the process is hiring a DNA Technical Leader to set up the lab and run it, Bryant said.
The Sheriff's Office is interviewing applicants.
Before the lab goes online, another specialist will be hired and the lab will be accredited.
"We've already ordered a lot of the equipment, but we're also interviewing folks nationwide to be that right person who's going to set the lab up," Bryant said.
Richland County Sheriff's Office has had its DNA lab since the fall of 2004, said Demi Garvin, who directs the forensics laboratory. The lab examines more than a thousand cases a year, Garvin said.
"We think it's been wildly successful," she said.
Bryant thinks the county's will be, too.
"We are excited about the DNA lab and what it's going to do to enhance our forensics teams," Bryant said. "It will be state of the art, we'll be ahead of the game in technology, and we'll be able to go forward."