Forensic Science Communications - July 2004
July 2004 - Volume 6 - Number 3
Research and Technology
Public Forensic Laboratory Budget Issues
Administering forensic laboratories, including budgeting, is a crucial aspect of public services (Hatch 2001; Peterson 2001). A budget crisis exists in many forensic services programs. Attracting and retaining competent employees are among the problems faced by forensic agencies. Although some states claim to offer competitive salaries, the reality is different (Heylin 2002). The focus of the survey presented in this paper is on budget issues facing state-level public forensic laboratories.
The location of the forensic laboratory in the criminal justice system organizational structure can affect the budget, funding, and sometimes the objectives of public forensic laboratories. There are three types of public forensic laboratories—local (city and county), state, and federal.
Local Forensic Laboratories
City and county laboratories are often under the control of law enforcement. The agency head may be a sheriff or police chief who may not be fully aware of the needs of the forensic laboratory. The administrator may funnel more of the limited budget to law enforcement services with which they are more familiar. Even when the administrator acknowledges the role of the forensic laboratory, public image is considered. A laboratory instrument is not as visible as a police cruiser.
In addition, a close relationship with law enforcement may present an ethical dilemma for forensic scientists. The scientists may see themselves as working for law enforcement, and this could hinder scientific objectivity.
However, forensic laboratories are sometimes able to work with law enforcement agencies to obtain grants and assistance that might not be otherwise available. They may also benefit from statutes allowing law enforcement agencies to keep a portion of the proceeds from criminal seizures.
State Forensic Laboratories
State government usually follows one of two organizational hierarchies. The most common is when the laboratory operates under the auspices of a law enforcement agency, such as the state police or other state law enforcement agency. This presents the same ethical and budget dilemmas faced by local forensic laboratories.
An alternative structure is when the laboratory is elevated to a state-level agency. An example is the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences (Alabama). In this structure, the forensic laboratory reports to a civilian director. State law enforcement agencies submit samples to the laboratory, but the forensic scientists maintain a level of autonomy that may not be experienced by laboratory operating directly under law enforcement agencies. With this structure, however, the laboratory must compete with other state agencies for funding.
Federal Forensic Laboratories
At the federal level the laboratories are often in the same agency as the law enforcement officers with whom they serve, and their status in the organization is equal to the investigative divisions. The laboratories report to a civilian, who is often a political appointee. Federal forensic laboratories receive samples from local and state law enforcement agencies and maintain a level of autonomy from them.
Other federal laboratories may provide services to law enforcement agencies but are not full-time forensic laboratories. They are often specialty laboratories performing routine regulatory analyses for environmental, health, and agriculture departments. Samples submitted to these laboratories usually come from the divisions in the laboratory’s agency but may also come from other law enforcement agencies.
Forensic laboratories may need to consider alternate ways to reduce costs in order to provide high-quality services. Some cost-reducing approaches include procuring services from a nongovernmental supplier (outsourcing) or arranging for private enterprise to control, with limited government oversight, government services (privatization). Merging two or more government services (consolidation) is another means of controlling costs. The decision to implement alternative ways to provide services should be made on a case-by-case basis.
Cost-saving measures include outsourcing (Dalpe and Anderson 1997; Prager 1994). However, when forensic services are outsourced, privacy and security issues may be a concern. For example, contracting fingerprint comparisons or chemical analyses of evidence may reveal the identities of criminal suspects. It may be more difficult to maintain control of access to evidence and case files in private facilities.
Privatization has been implemented in prisons (Caliri 1996; Greene 2001). Cost savings from privatizing government services has mixed reviews (Nink 2000; Pratt 1999). Ethical questions about transferring what has been traditionally viewed as a governmental responsibility to for-profit businesses have been addressed (Campos e Cunha 1998; Ogle 1999). As with outsourcing, security and privacy issues may be a concern. Additional concerns include the need for local agencies to budget for services previously obtained without charge.
Consolidating services provided by public facilities can offer cost savings, but the logistics of financing must be considered (Krimmel 1997; Ostrom 1998). A larger department may be able to offer a more complete array of services, but the contributing law enforcement agency personnel may not receive the same level of attention. However, the lack of personal interaction may strengthen the objectivity of the forensic scientist. The savings in administrative costs may offset the additional expense of transporting the evidence to another facility.
If the laboratory services a large geographic area, the scientists performing the forensic analyses may be required to travel to testify as expert witnesses at criminal trials. Many courts assume that state or federal agencies will cover the travel costs of the expert witnesses, but sometimes the courts will help pay the costs.
Survey of Forensic Laboratories
Supervisors with budget responsibilities at state forensic laboratories and a small sampling of other laboratories were surveyed. The survey was emailed to some supervisors. Copies of the survey were also distributed to supervisors attending the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s annual Symposium for Crime Laboratory Directors on September 23-27, 2002, in St. Louis, Missouri. Of the 75 surveys distributed, 24 completed surveys were received, for a rate of return of 32 percent. The number of questions was kept to a minimum to encourage participation.
Question 1 requested contact information of the respondent and has been omitted for purposes of confidentiality. An analysis of questions 2 through 10 follows. The total number of responses for questions 5 through 10 may exceed the total number of respondents because more than one answer was possible.
Table 1: Question 2—What is the Size of Your Department or Section?
Managers with budgetary responsibilities tend to be in charge of more than 20 employees. This is probably because supervisors of smaller groups do not have significant budget responsibilities.
Table 2: Question 3—What Level of Government is Your Department or Section?
The state facilities ranged from regional laboratories serving only a small segment of the state to laboratories serving the entire state. In some cases, the responding laboratories were branches of the larger forensic laboratory system and performed specialty services.
Table 3: Question 4—Approximately What Size Population Does Your Department or Section Serve?
Most of the respondents served large populations (more than 1,000,000 people). This was expected because most are state laboratories serving the entire state.
Table 4: Question 5—What is the Area of Specialization of Your Department or Section?
Approximately two-thirds of the surveyed laboratories were full-service forensic facilities. Of the remaining laboratories, most had more than one specialty. Common responses in the other category included firearms, toolmarks, fire, and explosives.
Table 5: Question 6—If Given a One-Time Lump Sum of $250,000 to be Spent in the Year, How Would It Be Allocated?
The overwhelming choice for spending a one-time lump sum of $250,000 was the purchase of new instruments. This was followed by conferences and training for employees. Some respondents indicated that although they would like to allocate bonuses for employees, there was no mechanism in place to do this or they were not authorized to do so. Several respondents indicated a desire for overtime funds for employees to help with the work backlog. One respondent indicated a desire for a new building rather than improving the existing structure.
Table 6: Question 7—If Given a Ten-Percent Increase to Your Annual Budget, How Would it Be Allocated?
If a laboratory were given an annual ten-percent budget increase, hiring additional employees was the first choice. Laboratories are under increasing workloads and need more employees to do the work. Salary increases and conferences and training, means of rewarding hard-working employees, closely follow the request for additional employees. However, salary issues are often handled by the legislature, leaving little room for discretion by the supervisor.
Table 7: Question 8—If Forced to Take a Ten-Percent Decrease to Your Annual Budget, How Would It Be Allocated?
Supervisors often have discretion in how cuts should be made, whereas increases in funding are earmarked by the state legislature for specific objectives. Canceling conferences and training led the cutbacks because they are often seen as an employee reward. Canceling new equipment orders followed. Many respondents indicated that in an austerity program, the goal was to avoid personnel layoffs.
Table 8: Question 9—What is Your Goal Regarding the Size of Your Budget?
All laboratories surveyed are experiencing increasing demands for their services and want to increase their budget to meet these demands. Some laboratories are increasing the range of services to meet demands for additional services. Increasing demands related to overall needs and local issues instigated new mission objectives.
Table 9: Question 10—How Do You Justify Requested Increases in Budget or Prevention of Decreases in Budget?
Most respondents indicated that all the options were reasons to request increases or prevent decreases in budget. Maintaining and improving output to keep up with an increasing workload tops the list of budget justification. Improving the quality of services followed. Anticipated increases in workload and modernization of technology also ranked high.
This paper presented a survey examining some budget issues facing the public forensic laboratory. The survey comments conveyed that additional funding is necessary to maintain and improve facilities and equipment and to provide competitive employee compensation. Comments also indicated that often the supervisor has limited authority regarding budget issues and that decisions regarding budget requests are based on what is likely to receive approval from higher echelons, not necessarily what the laboratory manager believes to be the best for the forensic laboratory.
Sources for additional funding are usually limited by the public-service nature of agencies. Possible avenues to explore include testing equipment in exchange for use of and discounts on the purchase of the equipment. However, the laboratory’s workload may make testing time prohibitive. Another funding option is to offer for-fee services. This might be limited to other public agencies to avoid potential conflicts of interest.
Public and private grants are available (Gulick 2003). Information on funding opportunities may be found at the National Criminal Justice Reference Service’s Website: .
Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, Available: www.adfs.state.al.us.
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