Wisconsin's Department of Justice says it plans to hire more employees and is developing a pay progression program to speed up processing times at the State Crime Lab, where some types of evidence testing has continued to lag.
Attorney General Josh Kaul announced the additions during the unveiling of a new, $192,000 Crime Scene Response vehicle for the Madison laboratory Tuesday. The vehicle will make it easier for investigators to more efficiently collect and preserve evidence from crime scenes around the state. It joins a fleet of two other vehicles at the state crime labs in Milwaukee and Wausau.
The vehicle is one step in a series of investments Kaul said he is making to improve testing times at the State Crime Lab. The wait times for DNA testing and firearms testing has steadily increased over several years although the amount of evidence being submitted for testing remains stagnant, Kaul said.
Law enforcement agencies and district attorneys offices statewide rely on the crime lab to process evidence they need to prosecute cases. If that process takes too long, it can compromise investigations and prosecutions. The number of DNA tests that have taken more than 60 days to complete have also increased, though some toxicology test times have improved, Kaul said.
"Making sure we reduce those delays is going to be an important area of focus," Kaul said. "There has been a fairly consistent increase in turnaround times."
The Crime Scene Response Unit consists of 22 staff from multiple disciplines and from the three WSCL locations who volunteer to respond to scenes. The unit primarily responds to homicides, officer-involved shootings, clandestine graves and autopsies related to crime scenes. In 2018, the unit responded to 90 requests from law enforcement.
In January, the unit has responded to six cases. This resulted in 17 individuals out of the lab at scenes that required multiple days of processing time, autopsies and vehicle processing. The total unit time accounted for approximately 579 analytical hours, according to the state Department of Justice. This does not include any time spent at the lab preparing reports.
Increasing efficiencies and retaining analysts at the State Crime Lab has been an ongoing challenge across Democratic and Republican administrations at DOJ. The lab has struggled with turnover as analysts leave to make more money in the private sector and others have also complained of poor morale and pay at the agency, according to a consultant report released by the agency in August.
Kaul's predecessor Republican Brad Schimel also acknowledged those problems and pledged to improve them before he left office.
How well the State Crime works has also been a focus as the state continues to test backlogged sexual assault kits. The lab has been charged with testing those kits, thousands of which have been stored on shelves in law enforcement agencies statewide, while continuing to process evidence and DNA from current crime cases.
"There is outstanding staff at the State Crime Lab that is doing cutting-edge work. We need to make sure they have the resources they need and they are being paid appropriately for the quality of the work they are doing," Kaul said.