The state crime lab and medical examiner’s offices are facing nearly $300,000 in combined cuts, even as state officials have warned staffing shortages in these departments are bringing Mississippi to the brink of a public safety crisis.
The cuts — $248,000 for the state crime lab and $24,000 for the medical examiner’s office — were part of the legislative budget committee recommendations for fiscal year 2019 announced Monday. The report recommended an overall general fund reduction of 1.2 percent or $66.1 million, with cuts to most agencies or departments.
But Marshall Fisher, commissioner of public safety, said the cuts to the crime lab, which analyzes crime scene data, and the medical examiner’s office, which determines a cause of death, are particularly dangerous in Mississippi, which has the second highest homicide rate in the nation, per capita.
“It is potentially a very critical issue. (The crime lab) is the centerpiece of the criminal justice system for the state of Mississippi,” Fisher said. “… And the backlog in the Medical Examiner’s office is going to get worse.”
Currently, the medical examiner’s office employs three doctors, who each performs over 500 autopsies a year, double the 250 recommended by the National Association of Medical Examiners. The backlog in the medical examiner’s office is one year for finalized autopsy reports. One state over in Arkansas, the wait is approximately 60 days.
Upstairs in the state crime lab, budget cuts have whittled down what was once a staff of 120 to just 85. In the last five years, the backlog has exploded, going from “basically zero” to over 3,000 reports that are over 90 days old, according to Sam Howell, director of the crime lab.
Responding to a question about cuts to these departments on Monday, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves pointed out that both the crime lab and the medical examiner’s office fall under the Department of Public Safety, which received an overall budget increase of one percent, or $838,000.
“I will tell you that DPS will spend $25 million more this budget year than was spent the year that I became lieutenant governor. They have more flexibility within their budget to move from one agency to another. So if there is significant challenges at the crime lab, I think that’s something we can deal with in the $89 million budget for DPS,” Reeves said.
On Monday, hours after the legislative budget office released its recommendations, Speaker of the House Philip Gunn met with Fisher, Howell and Mark LeVaughn, the chief medical examiner. LeVaughn said that the meeting, which had been scheduled prior to the budget release, was to discuss budget concerns for these departments.
After the meeting, Gunn said in an email that today’s budget recommendations are not final.
“The budget is based upon the dollars as we see them today,” Gunn said. “We view this as a priority and will continue to explore ways to lessen the cuts.”
In the announcement Monday, Reeves said that the cuts to each department are largely based on cuts to positions that have been open for six months or longer. But Howell, of the crime lab, said earlier this year that the low salaries have made it difficult to both attract and retain talented staff.
“We can’t compete. If we do get someone here and they’re a great employee and we train them, then they’re going to go somewhere else. That’s what we see happen all the time,” Howell said in August.
LeVaughn, the chief medical examiner, said that in his department the problems posed by low salaries are compounded by an unusually high workload. In the Gulf Coast crime lab, where a position for medical examiner has remained open since the lab opened six years ago, the caseload would reach “well over 300” autopsies a year.
The job pays $190,000, approximately $45,000 lower than the national average for a similar position.
“I’m never going to find anyone now,” LeVaughn said Monday, after learning about the proposed cuts.
In an interview this summer, LeVaughn had warned that a delay in hiring medical examiners could lead to a “domino effect,” in which the pressure from the caseload forces one doctor to leave, thereby increasing the workload for the remaining doctors and ultimately forcing their departure as well.
In the months since, LeVaughn’s prediction seems to be coming true. Earlier this month, Dr. Lisa Funte announced that she’d be leaving the department at the end of December to take a position with the medical examiner’s office in Maine. LeVaughn said not long after, the second medical examiner, Dr. Brent Davis, told him that he would be leaving when he found another job.
“There will be nobody here soon. I can’t do this by myself. I’m not even going to attempt to do it by myself,” LeVaughn said. “But I want to stay here.”
Funte’s departure will leave Davis and LeVaughn to perform approximately 750 autopsies a year, more than three times the recommended number. Given these circumstances, LeVaughn predicts they may have to “pick and choose” which cases to prioritize.
Fisher described this prospect as “very concerning.”
“It’s not good enough. Would you think it was good enough if you had a family member who is a victim?” Fisher asked. “People who have family members who are victims of crimes want justice, and I think they should have it. It’s tough times, and I am seriously concerned.”
Contributing: Adam Ganucheau