Report 97025 Summary - December 1998

Forensic Laboratories:

Many Face Challenges Beyond Accreditation to Assure the Highest Quality Services

RESULTS IN BRIEF

A combination of municipal, county, and state-operated laboratories provides California with the majority of its forensic services. Forensic laboratories collect, analyze, and interpret evidence involved in the investigation and prosecution of criminal activity. County district attorneys' offices, county sheriffs' offices, or city police departments operate 19 forensic laboratories that serve approximately 77 percent of the State's population in 13 counties. The State Department of Justice operates full-service laboratories at 11 sites that provide services to the remaining counties in the State. This report focuses only on the 19 local laboratories.

For several years, the California Association of Crime Laboratory Directors (CACLD), an organization composed of directors and supervisors from forensic laboratories, has asserted that scarce financial resources and increased caseloads have hampered their ability to keep pace with new technologies and to guarantee only the highest quality forensic services. CACLD believes that as a result, laboratories are open to attack on the credibility of their work.

In light of these issues, the forensic community feels it is important for laboratories to participate in the voluntary accreditation program of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB). To obtain accreditation, a laboratory must demonstrate that its management, operations, personnel, procedures, equipment, facility, security, and health and safety procedures meet established standards. The program also requires laboratories to implement proficiency testing, continuing education, and other programs that improve laboratory personnel's overall skills and services.

We reviewed the 19 laboratories to assess their readiness to obtain ASCLD/LAB accreditation. We found that 13 of the laboratories have not developed or implemented one or more of the components of a quality control system. In addition, although required for accreditation, many of the laboratories do not have proficiency testing and court monitoring programs. Without accreditation, the laboratories cannot affirm they meet accepted industry standards for integrity and quality assurance. We estimate that it will cost nearly $2 million annually for the laboratories to implement and maintain quality control systems.

Accreditation indicates a laboratory has met certain professional standards, therefore improving the credibility of its services, but does not guarantee a laboratory operates effectively and maximizes its use of available resources. Accredited laboratories may still have cramped facilities or outdated and improperly working equipment. Accredited laboratories may also lack a management information system capable of generating information in a format that allows the laboratory directors to plan or effectively manage resources, and may not provide adequate employee training programs.

Thus, many of the laboratories, both those that have attained accreditation and those that have not, could improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their operations by constructing new facilities or redesigning existing facilities to allow staff to more efficiently and safely accomplish assigned tasks. Laboratories could also improve efficiency by replacing outmoded equipment with more efficient equipment, installing management information systems that laboratory management can use to make decisions regarding the best use of resources, and implementing training programs to develop the skills staff need to perform competently and efficiently. However, many laboratories are constrained from improving their facilities, replacing outmoded equipment, installing management information systems, and implementing training programs because they lack funding.

We estimate that it will cost more than $221 million to construct new facilities for the laboratories that do not currently meet the standards recommended by forensic laboratory design literature. In addition, while our consultants did not estimate the cost to replace all of the outdated equipment they found at the laboratories, to provide some perspective on how significant the cost to replace equipment can be, they identified 15 items that need replacement and estimated that the cost to replace those items would approach $750,000. However, our review of the equipment lists identified many other examples of equipment 10 and 20 years old that may need replacement. Further, the costs to develop management information systems and implement training programs will vary with the size of the respective laboratories. Considering estimates some of the laboratories provided, the cost to develop a management information system can range from $3,000 to $8,000 per work station. Finally, if each laboratory spends $1,000 per forensic examiner per year for training, as our consultants suggest, the annual costs to provide this training for staff at all 19 laboratories would exceed $600,000.

We also found that the laboratories do not track information on costs of individual tests; thus, they cannot accurately assess how cost-effective their services are. They also have not explored the cost-effectiveness of outsourcing some services to private laboratories or regionalizing certain services. For example, we found the anticipated caseloads and staffing levels of at least two of the eight laboratories planning to implement DNA testing are not sufficient to justify the investment in equipment and training.

We also attempted to examine whether any of the laboratories could transfer cases to others to reduce the backlog some laboratories experience, or whether consolidating some services would be appropriate. We were unable to draw any conclusions because workload data was either unavailable, inconsistent, or not standardized. However, some, such as the Los Angeles and San Diego county laboratories, have considered consolidating all services within their regions, though these plans have yet to take shape.


RECOMMENDATIONS

The Legislature will need to determine which of these deficiencies it will appropriate funds to address. If its primary goal is to have all 19 of the local laboratories accredited, the Legislature should first appropriate funds for quality assurance in the laboratories that lack complete programs. The Legislature should distribute any additional funds equitably among all local laboratories. Finally, the Legislature should require the laboratories to evaluate the benefits of consolidating and regionalizing their services and document the cost-effectiveness of the services they currently provide.

As with any funds it appropriates, the Legislature should place constraints on the money it designates to improve the delivery of forensic services to ensure that the local laboratories use them as intended and that the money supplements, rather than replaces, local funds.

To ensure that they maintain ASCLD/LAB standards for accreditation and provide cost-effective forensic services, the local laboratories should do the following:

  • Appoint quality managers and support staff at sufficient levels to implement quality control and safety programs, including documentation and periodic audits.

  • Maintain a quality control program that includes proficiency testing and monitoring of court testimony.

  • Use qualified consultants to determine their specific facility needs and related costs.

  • Inventory all equipment and include a capital equipment replacement plan in their annual budgets.

  • Develop and implement appropriate management information systems to increase staff efficiency and improve operations management.

  • Analyze the costs of each of their services and compare those costs to private laboratories' charges.

  • Consider consolidating or regionalizing services, including DNA testing.

  • To aid in considering options, develop and maintain standardized and consistent workload data for the services they maintain.
AGENCY COMMENTS

We received comments from 13 of the 19 local forensics laboratories. Six laboratories chose not to provide written comments to the report. In general, the laboratories agreed with our conclusions and recommendations. However, several disagreed with our conclusions regarding the cost-effectiveness of implementing DNA testing at laboratories that anticipate small caseloads. We provide our comments to these and other concerns raised by the laboratories after their respective responses.


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