Dave Kolpack, Published July 15 2013
N.D. AG: Cuts won't affect state crime lab staffing
The director of the Midwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program warned nine crime labs in the region earlier this month that funding would likely be trimmed in the next fiscal year and possibly eliminated after that because of federal budget pressure.
The North Dakota lab is slated to receive about $78,000 this year.
Stenehjem, whose office runs the lab, said he never likes to see a reduction in funding for law enforcement, but that it’s part of a trend within the federal government.
“In the whole scheme of things we’re seeing a constant reduction in federal funds to assist us at the crime lab,” Stenehjem said. “Fortunately, the Legislature has stepped up and filled in the gap. We can withstand that within our budget.”
U.S. Attorney Timothy Purdon said last week that the projected cuts come at a “particularly bad time here in North Dakota” because of a rise in drug cases tied to increasing population in western counties be-cause of the oil boom.
Purdon is worried that further cutbacks in the form of employee furloughs will result in staff cuts.
Stenehjem said that won’t be the case at the lab.
Some new equipment purchases may be put on hold, but there will be no job cuts, he said.
“We’re going to keep the staff we have because we need them,” he said.
Lawmakers this past session agreed on a two-year budget of $9.4 million for the state crime lab, which includes bumping up the number of scientists from 21 to 23, five of whom currently handle drug cases. Stenehjem said there were 15 scientists at work when his office took over the lab in 2005.
The drug cases at the lab have ballooned in recent years, due in part to synthetic drug use. The lab handled 10 synthetic drug submissions in 2009 and 1,470 in 2012.
“I don’t want to pretend that there aren’t some areas of crime that concern me. The drug problem is very serious,” Stenehjem said. “What our agents are telling us preliminarily is that the amounts are increasing. Where an ounce or two in a typical drug case was not unusual, now we’re seeing pounds of it.”
The state plans to issue its annual crime report later this month.
A federal judge earlier this month unsealed indictments against 22 people charged with conspiracy to sell heroin and other drugs on a western North Dakota Indian reservation, in an investigation dubbed “Operation Winter’s End.” It’s one of several multi-defendant federal drug cases this year in North Dakota, officials said.
Stenehjem said North Dakota’s U.S. attorney’s office is doing its part to improve law enforcement, despite the federal government cutting financial support to the state.
“The good thing about North Dakota that we can be proud of is that the federal agents, the state agents and the local law enforcement really work together better than anywhere else I’ve seen,” Stenehjem said. “There’s just a minimum of the turf wars and some of those kinds of things you see elsewhere.”