State legislative committee discusses Allegheny County Crime Lab funding
A joint hearing of the state Senate and House Democratic Policy committees explored ways to restore $2.9 million in state reimbursements for law enforcement services for Allegheny County’s Forensic Science Crime Laboratory.
The rare joint hearing was held at the request of state Rep. Dom Costa (D-Allegheny) and Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny). The hearing focused on the growing demand for the county’s crime lab services and how state funding cuts in recent years have threatened the lab’s operation.
Senator Lisa Boscola (D- Northampton/Lehigh), who co-chaired the hearing, noted that the crime lab saves the state significant dollars every year.
“Let’s face it, if this lab was to shut down, its huge caseload would shift to state police crime labs throughout the state,” Sen. Boscola said. “Unless the legislature spent millions of dollars to build yet another state crime lab facility, the state police labs would quickly become overwhelmed, spurring delays in evidence analysis and hampering investigative work statewide.”
Over 18,350 pieces of evidence went through the Allegheny County laboratory in 2012. The lab chiefly serves Pittsburgh and Allegheny County municipalities, but also does work on county, state and federal cases.
Rep. Dom Costa, who co-chaired the hearing with Sen. Boscola, said Allegheny County “can no longer afford to maintain the County Crime Lab/Medical Examiner’s office and it is absolutely necessary that the state step up and restore the prior budgetary funding that used to be in place in the governor’s budget.”
Sen. Jay Costa emphasized that the county crime lab provides services to more than 1.2 million Pennsylvanians. He said that shifting lab work to the state police lab in Greensburg would hamper law enforcement work and delay investigations.
“This lab is crucial toward for not just the citizens of Allegheny County, but the state as a whole,” Sen. Costa added.
When the state eliminated its funding in 2011, Allegheny County became fully responsible for the cost of the crime lab. Rep. Costa said the county does not have the financial resources to continue solely funding the crime lab.
“Closing the Allegheny County Crime Lab/Medical Examiner’s office would deliver a crushing blow to the State Police Crime Lab -- which is already understaffed and backlogged -- as well as law enforcement,” Rep. Costa said. “Consequently, it would dramatically affect the prosecution of pending court cases throughout Western PA as well as other parts of the commonwealth.”
The laboratory provides a multitude of services, including forensic services and DNA testing, firearms and tool marks, latent prints, toxicology, drug chemistry and crime scene analysis. In addition to the forensic services, the lab has access to several state and nationwide databases.
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald emphasized that county taxpayers have been subsidizing services that benefit communities and agencies outside of Allegheny County for many years.
“The cost to operate the crime lab averages about $4.5 million since 2009,” Mr. Fitzgerald said. “The county’s overall operating budget totaled $817 million this year -- $427 million that is derived from property taxes. “While $4.5 million may seem like just a small number of that overall budget, it does have an impact on property taxes.”
Stephie-Anna Ramaley, Allegheny County assistant district attorney added, “Forensic evidence is the most important tool there is for gathering evidence and prosecutions.” She detailed the numerous crime lab services and how crucial they can be as a regional asset to police investigators, criminal prosecutors, and exonerating innocent people.
Responding to a published comment from a Corbett Administration official who stated that the state police labs can absorb the Allegheny County crime lab’s caseload, Ms. Ramaley said, “I don’t know what facts they are basing that statement on, but they’re not basing it on reality.”
The Allegheny County lab has received numerous awards and recognitions over the years, including awards from the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board, Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, and others.
Joining senators Boscola and Jay Costa, senators who participated included: Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny), Larry Farnese (D-Phila.), Jim Ferlo (D-Allegheny), Wayne Fontana (D-Allegheny), Matt Smith (D-Allegheny), and Tim Solobay (D-Washington).
Joining Rep Dom Costa, House legislators who participated included: Paul Costa, Dan Deasy (D-Allegheny), Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny), William Kortz (D-Allegheny), Nick Kotik (D-Allegheny), Joseph Markosek (D-Allegheny), Dan Miller (D-Allegheny), and Erin Molchany (D-Allegheny).