New crime lab a necessity

Posted: Monday, April 12, 2010

If we want Alaska law enforcement agencies to fight crime with the maximum efficiency, then we need to face the fact that our state crime lab is no longer keeping pace, let alone leading the way, in applying scientific analysis to evidence. We are years behind. It is past time for a new crime lab.

Alaska ranks first in the nation in rape and ninth in violent crime overall, making a state-of-the-art crime lab a matter of urgency. The lab would not only speed up the processing of evidence with which to convict the guilty, it would actually reduce crime by moving perpetrators off the street sooner. That would happen through better analysis of evidence from gateway crimes, such as home burglaries, yielding clues to the perpetrator's identity when latent fingerprinting cannot. In such cases, criminals are taken off the street before they have the opportunity to commit more serious offenses.

A new lab protects Alaskans in other ways. It can shield the innocent from false accusation with timely evidence processing to clear them of suspicion, and it can lead to the exoneration of the wrongly convicted. The proposed lab is designed and sized to meet our needs and will enable the state to keep up with the forensic caseload, utilizing current and emerging DNA scientific techniques.

If we don't act now and build an appropriately sized lab, our backlog will only increase. All indicators show that there will be a significantly greater demand for lab services: The state's population is expected to increase by 140,000 by 2030. The court system has seen an increase in felony filings of 70 percent during the past eight years, with the trend continuing. Prison populations are projected to rise. Meanwhile, surveys of police departments indicate that they may increase the amount of evidence submitted for analysis because we'll be better able to handle the increase. We are adding troopers and police officers to target domestic violence and sex-related crimes.

Under the design for the lab, no expansion of the building's footprint would be needed for at least 20 years. The state's design team consists of leading experts in all related fields who were charged with delivering a product to meet both current and future needs. The new Alaska Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory has been well vetted in the public process, including the legislative review at the Capitol.

Steps have already been taken to build the crime lab. The state leased the lab's 12-acre site from the Municipality of Anchorage at $1 per year for 50 years, with an option to extend for 25 years. The municipality's contribution benefits all of Alaska, inasmuch as the crime lab processes evidence for all law enforcement agencies throughout the state. This will be especially beneficial for areas outside of Anchorage, where more than 60 percent of the state's violent crimes occur.

The state has spent $8 million to date on design and $8.8 million on site preparation. The $75 million appropriation under Senate Bill 226/House Bill 299 will fund the completion of the construction. Mindful of the need for efficient expenditures of public dollars, the project team trimmed $20 million from its initial budget through deferred build out of some lab spaces to time of need.

The project is currently on time and on budget. The construction will provide an immediate economic boost with more than 250 new jobs, $30 million in wages for Alaskans and $30 million for materials supplied by local vendors. Fifteen Alaska subcontractors will be involved.

It's hard to put a price tag on the value of public safety. This new crime lab will benefit Alaskans in many ways, notably getting offenders off the streets and providing jobs. This investment in Alaska's safety and security is worth making now.

Department of Public Safety Commissioner Joseph Masters has spent 28 years in law enforcement including positions as a Village Police Officer, Village Public Safety Officer, Municipal Police Officer and Alaska State Trooper.

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