Adding the 1,700-square-foot lab could drop DNA sample analysis turnaround times from up to 12 months all the way to two or three days, Sheriff Jim Hart says.
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The Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office has secured funding for a DNA lab it says will allow it to significantly speed up the processing of forensic evidence. The $3.5 million project has been in the works for a number of years. Sheriff Jim Hart said he hopes construction can begin by late summer.
The money came from a surplus of state dollars tied to a 2011 policy enacted by former Gov. Jerry Brown, known as “realignment,” that shifted responsibility for offenders convicted of lower-level crimes from the state to county governments.
While the sheriff’s office already has six staff members who process fingerprints, digital evidence and skeletal remains, it currently has to send DNA samples to the state Department of Justice for analysis. The turnaround time to receive results, even for serious cases such as sexual assault or homicide, can be up to a year.
“We could have a sexual assault and the survivor goes through, not only the assault, but the exam and the interviews, and then we have to sit across from them and say that we might not complete this case for up to 12 months,” said Hart. “That’s a tough conversation to have, and people really lose confidence in the justice system when they hear that.”
Once the lab is completed, Hart said having the in-house facility would reduce that turnaround time to just two or three days. “It’s a huge benefit to the entire justice system,” he said. “It gets people off the street who are committing serious crimes, and clears people who might initially be a person of interest.”
Hart said Santa Cruz County received $2.8 million from the state for the construction and purchase of some of the lab equipment. That money went to the county’s Community Corrections Partnership, which is responsible for developing the county’s realignment plan and advising the board of supervisors on implementing realignment legislation.
In addition to that $2.8 million, Hart said, there are existing funds to cover staffing for at least five years.
Assuming the facility stays on schedule to break ground by late summer, construction of the 1,700-square-foot lab within the Soquel Avenue sheriff’s office headquarters is expected to be completed around early 2024. The office would then start gradually hiring criminalists.
The designs are set, and though the lab still has to go through the county permitting process, if everything goes as planned, Hart said the sheriff’s office will be processing DNA samples in 2-2.5 years.
More changes could be on the way soon. According to Hart, the county administrative office has organized a small committee for the early stages of planning the construction of a new jail; the current jail on Water Street is about 43 years old. Hart said county officials are looking at ways to secure funding for the “massive” project, and touring new jails around the state to see what other jurisdictions have done.
He also said he hopes the jail could be built in an unincorporated area of the county to “abate any negative impacts that it could possibly be having on the City of Santa Cruz.”
Further, Hart said that as soon as he can hire and train more personnel, the authorities will be able to open the Blaine Street women’s facility — but recruiting and retention is difficult these days.
“A lot of people don’t want to get into corrections work right now,” he said. “Law enforcement is seeing that all across the state and country.”