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Law enforcement officials used words like "Armageddon" to warn lawmakers of a crisis brewing at state crime labs, where caseloads are up 25 percent since Detroit's police lab was shut down more than four months ago.
Detroit's work is being handled by Michigan State Police forensic scientists after an audit found errors in 10 percent of 200 random gun cases at the Detroit lab.
Many of the state's 216 forensic employees are working up to 30 hours of overtime each two-week pay period to keep up with added workload, state police Capt. Michael Thomas said Tuesday.
"It will have an impact across the entire public safety system in the state," he said, noting the department is falling farther behind on efforts to lower a backlog of cases.
Oakland County Undersheriff Michael McCabe said the county's small lab is being overwhelmed because local police departments see the increasing backlog at state labs and are starting to send more work to the county.
"You've got an Armageddon on your hands," McCabe told the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State Police and Military Affairs.
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy has said authorities would review more than five years of files to search for cases where gun evidence may have been misjudged by the Detroit police lab.
Worthy also testified at Tuesday's hearing, telling legislators Detroit police should never again run a crime lab. She wants the state police to handle forensics for all Detroit crimes, hoping Wayne County can help pay for operating a new state police lab in Detroit.
But money is tight at the state and local levels, and Gov. Jennifer Granholm's administration is expected to propose spending cuts Thursday when it unveils its budget proposal for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.
The state police recently transferred $5 million from elsewhere in the department to use for overtime and hiring new forensic workers, but that probably will not be enough.
"They're going to need more money," Sen. Valde Garcia, R-Howell, said. "The question is will the administration and the Legislature give them the money? We saw the ripple effect that's occurring.
"You've got more people sitting in jail waiting for evidence to be processed. You've got criminals that have not been brought to justice because the evidence hasn't been processed. And you may have innocent people sitting in prison because the evidence was processed incorrectly."
Thomas said he wants to hire 45 new employees an extra 20 percent to help address the extra 20,000 cases a year the state is handling because of the Detroit lab's closure. Some workers could come from the Detroit lab, where problems centered around police employees handling gun cases not civilian employees handling other cases, according to officials.
The state police also has a higher caseload because it is conducting new tests on evidence in Detroit cases.
Before taking over Detroit's caseload in late September, the state police appeared to be making progress in reducing its case backlogs.
But the backlog of firearms cases more than quadrupled in 2008. The backlog of DNA, trace evidence, documents and polygraph cases increased, too. The backlog of cases involving drugs, latent prints, and toxicology decreased in 2008.