The Associated Press
TALLAHASSEE — The head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said Tuesday that budget cuts being contemplated by state lawmakers could slow down some criminal investigations, because it would mean cuts in crime scene analysts and lab workers.
FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey said during a Cabinet meeting that if expected budget cuts go through, a backlog in DNA testing that had largely been eliminated will return, and other crime scene analysis will also suffer.
"We're looking at a major hit to the crime lab system,'' Bailey told Gov. Charlie Crist and members of the Cabinet.
A handful of forensics investigator positions will likely have to be cut at the FDLE's seven crime labs around the state as lawmakers consider a 5 percent cut to the agency's current-year budget and additional cuts for the budget year that starts July 1.
Lawmakers aren't trying to spin it — with tax collections dropping precipitously they say there's just not much they can do.
"I really don't have any other way out, there's just no money,'' said an apologetic Rep. Dick Kravitz, R-Jacksonville, the chairman of the House committee in charge of the criminal justice budget.
"We wish we didn't have to do this,'' added Sen. Victor Crist, Kravitz' counterpart in the Senate. "I am, and my committee, we're completely beside ourselves.''
Bailey said the FDLE would make its crime scene cuts first in major metro areas where big local police departments might be able to pick up the slack. But he acknowledged that many big city police departments and county sheriffs are also facing the possibility of cuts and may not be able to bridge the gap.
FDLE's crime labs get more than 90,000 requests a year to help with criminal investigations.
The prospect of having cases linger because evidence hasn't been analyzed is particularly irritating because the FDLE had just about erased a backlog in analyzing DNA submitted for analysis that has been a problem for years.
FDLE doesn't have a lot of choices when finding ways to cut it's budget, because the discretionary money that the Legislature is cutting primarily goes for day-to-day investigation expenses.
In next year's budget, the FDLE plans to make as many other non-investigation cuts as possible first, Bailey said. But those cuts won't help much. For example, FDLE is proposing to do away with the FDLE's role in the DARE anti-drug program, but that only saves $400,000.
Lawmakers begin their annual legislative session next week and are expected to immediately go into the current year budget to make additional cuts to bring it in line with continuing reductions in incoming tax dollars. Then they'll write the budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1, and that's expected to be even smaller than the current year's spending plan.
As chairman of the Senate's criminal justice budget subcommittee, Crist noted that it's not just FDLE that will be cut. Reductions will come across the board, from courts, to police officers, to prosecutors and the attorney general's office.
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"It's all necessary, or it wouldn't be funded in the first place,'' said Crist. "But the money's just not there.''