KSLA INVESTIGATES: $24M North Louisiana Crime Lab facing possible closure due to lack of funding
SHREVEPORT, La. (KSLA) - Built with a price tag of $24 million, the North Louisiana Crime Lab in Shreveport is the backbone of the area’s criminal justice system.
The lab processes around 15,000 pieces of evidence each year, helping police and prosecutors in 29 parishes convict criminals in drug, firearms, and murder cases. But it turns out, Louisiana lawmakers have never given the lab the cash it needs to operate at full speed. In fact, the lab is now facing a multi-million-dollar budget hole thanks to rising crime and increased costs brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Hollywood, forensic science is fast, flashy, and sometimes, even sexy. But that isn’t real forensic science. It’s television. While life in a real crime lab, is a little less dramatic.
We have a very eager staff that are great,” said Joseph Jones, director of the North Louisiana Crime Lab.
The work done at the lab is essential to the operation of the modern-day criminal justice system.
“This lab is one of the finest in the country. There are maybe three or four that compare,” Jones said.
Jones’ team of scientists analyze evidence from murders, violent crimes, and drug cases investigated by every single police agency in the 29 northernmost parishes in Louisiana.
“We have a total staff of about 26 scientists,” Jones said. “It’s something dedicated to justice first and foremost.”
In Shreveport, state leaders broke ground on the lab a decade ago, promising a forensic crime facility like no other in the south.
“I can confidently tell you there is no other job I would have taken in this country because of what this could be,” said Jones.
Fast forward to today, Jones’ team is processing evidence in record time, which is nothing short of a miracle because the lab has never been fully funded.
“For forensic toxicology, we’ll turn cases around in 30 to 40 days, which is something I’m proud of,” said Jones. “We work on a skeleton crew.”
In fact, half of the facility sits empty, and right now, the lab’s budget is so tight, Jones is laying off key staff and freezing wages just to keep the place from going broke.
“We’ve had to scale back our services to stay within our means,” he said. “The last thing we want to do is be a lab that can’t pay their employees.”
“This is a critical service this state cannot afford to lose. You cannot shut us down and still have a criminal justice system,” Jones said.
Here’s the problem. When the lab gets a case, it pays the front-end costs to analyze the evidence. Jones says the lab will analyze about 15,000 pieces of evidence this year, and the projected price tag of that work is $6 million. Now, under Louisiana law, court fees and fines from the 29 parishes the lab serves are supposed to cover the tab, meaning the lab needs to collect $400 for every case it works.
But right now, according to Jones, the lab is only getting $168 per case, creating a funding shortfall of more than $3 million.
“This is the role of government, just like our trash pickup, our police, our fire. The crime lab and funding the crime lab is a role of government,” said Sen. Barrow Peacock, a Republican who represents District 37.
Sen. Peacock stepped in during 2022 when the lab faced a similar fiscal cliff, helping to secure $1.5 million in emergency funding from Baton Rouge.
“We were able to, in working with the governor, come up with bridge money to keep this place open and funded the way it should be,” said Sen. Peacock.
And the City of Shreveport pitched in too, giving the lab $400,000 in COVID relief cash. But Sen. Peacock says that money was a one-time shot in the arm.
“The COVID funding, that’s what that was really there for,” the senator said.
So during the upcoming legislative session, Jones plans to press state lawmakers for a fixed source of funding. One idea is tap into the Department of Public Safety’s (DPS) budget because forensic work on state police investigations is a heavy load, but DPS doesn’t pay the lab a dime.
“One of our biggest clients is the State Police,” said Jones. “It’s about 20 percent of our caseload right now.”
Sen. Peacock says the idea is worth considering.
“We as a state need to look at what’s the best way to fund our criminal justice system,” he said.
But Jones is adamant he’s not looking for a handout. He says he’s just asking for enough funds to keep the lab open one year at a time.
“We’re going to get things done because they have to. This is a critical service that the state cannot afford to lose,” Jones said.
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