KBI Addresses Forensic "Bottleneck," Eyes Solutions

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GEARY COUNTY, Kan. (WIBW) -- For months, WIBW has been following a shocking story out of Junction City- a church minister accused of molesting young boys over the course of several years.

The case of Jordan Young has been repeatedly delayed as the state waited on DNA results from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation- evidence prosecutors say is critical.

"The Young case been continued repeatedly here because we know the KBI is working very hard on the DNA evidence in this case. There’s a lot of DNA evidence. There are a lot of things they have to go through and we need that before we can come to a resolution of this case and it’s an important case," said Geary County Attorney Steve Opat.

We turned to Kyle Smith, Deputy Director of the KBI, who said that the 100 samples submitted in the Young case are in the final stage of testing.

Smith went on to shed light on some longstanding issues the agency is facing when it comes to the length of time it takes for the KBI to issue forensic reports.

"It is a state of Kansas public safety issue. It is an embarrassing situation that we’ve gotten to the point where our forensic capacity is so limited that local agencies- sheriff’s departments and police- and the victims are having to wait weeks, months, years before they get results," Smith said.

The KBI is facing physical limitations at their headquarters lab on SW Tyler in Topeka, located in the basement of a 1928 school building. Besides less than ideal conditions, officials say there’s no more room to add additional scientists.

"We’re trying to bootstrap a forensic lab in the basement of this building. The hearing, ventilation, air conditioning, electronic capacity, sheer space are just too limited in an only stone foundation building for use to properly do the forensic work we need to do," Smith said.

According to national accreditation standards, scientists are supposed to have 1000 square feet for laboratory and office space. Right now, the KBI has 400 square feet per scientist.

"So we’re really cramped and that makes for an inefficient operation. And we have problems making sure contamination doesn’t occur when they walk through a laboratory area to get to their office," Smith added.

On top of that, the KBI is having trouble keeping forensic scientists under the state pay plan. Smith says lower state pay in a competitive environment contributed to a 14% turnover each of the past three years.

"We can recruit people to go into the field of forensic science but getting them to stay here is hard. We get them fully trained but then they’re marketable so they can go work for Johnson County lab, Florida, anywhere in the nation. There’s a massive demand for criminalists, be it crime scene investigators, DNA, firearms examiners. When there’s that kind of demand, they can go. So unless we have the capacity to give them a salary and potential for improvement of their career, they’ll go somewhere else and they have," he told WIBW.

There’s no doubt that these issues have trickled down to the local jurisdictions.

In a KBI survey last spring of area partners, the law enforcement community reported that 41% of cases were either dismissed or reduced charges because they couldn’t get lab reports in time.

"We have people here who are so dedicated but we realize there’s this bottleneck because of the capacity and that is affecting local law enforcement- their ability to get cases worked and get resolved. The longer it takes for us to get those results to them, a lot of times we have criminals out on the streets out committing new crimes. That’s horrible. Even after we’ve identified that person and get them under arrest, there may be delays of the court cases because it takes so long to get the reports out from our forensic laboratory. We have to do it right, absolutely, because personal rights are involved but because of that delay, cases get continued," Smith said.

"You kind of have to pick and choose as a prosecutor, the kinds of cases that you think you are important enough because we know the demands that are placed on the KBI and not just by Geary County. There are 105 counties in Kansas that deal with the very same problem," Opat added.

The KBI is working to get pay raises for scientists. Meanwhile, the Governor's budget proposal included initial funding for a new lab to be built nearby on Washburn University’s campus. It would allow the KBI to hire more scientists who could help with the workload and would get to work in a state-of -the-art facility, hopefully improving retention rates and helping with recruitment.

Opat stressed that funding for the KBI is critical.

"These demands aren’t going to decrease. They’re only going to increase and juries expect to see and hear this kind of evidence and frankly, without it, we’re going to lose some cases. Not only because of the delay that’s imposed because of the workload the KBI has but just the reason that they can’t get to it," he told 13 News.

Smith say the goal is for the KBI to turn reports in 30-60 days, bringing justice and closure to those impacted in criminal cases.