Lexington may start paying a private lab for DNA testing for violent crimes. Here’s why

Lexington may soon use a private lab for its DNA testing for violent crimes due to a backlog at the Kentucky State Police crime lab.

Mayor Linda Gorton’s proposed $531.8 million budget includes up to $150,000 for private laboratory testing.

“We are investing $150,000 in private lab DNA testing to accelerate violent crime investigations and identify perpetrators quickly,” Gorton said during Tuesday’s budget address. “This will serve crime victims and their families by delivering justice at a much faster pace — dedicated private funding for private DNA testing will decrease the time it takes to process DNA evidence results from years to weeks.”

The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council must approve the appropriation as part of its budget deliberations. The council has until June 30 to do so. If it approves the $150,000, testing could begin July 1.

The Kentucky State Police crime lab has long had problems processing all of the evidence it is sent from more than 400 police departments across the state.

Delays in processing evidence has translated to delays throughout the criminal justice system. That evidence could also exonerate people who have been charged. Those delays are also costing taxpayers untold amounts of money. Taxpayers foot the bill for long, extended jail stays.

Prosecutors, police and defense attorneys have long complained about the extensive delays in testing results.

Lack of staffing causing delays at KSP

KSP Laboratories have six labs across the state in Frankfort, Middletown, London, Cold Springs, Ashland and Louisville. The central laboratory, located in Frankfort, is the only site that does DNA testing.

An increase in samples sent to the lab and problems keeping staff has contributed to the delays in processing evidence, KSP Commissioner Phillip Burnett Jr., said during a January Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

The labs have only been staffed at 70% since 2021. KSP lab staff starting salary is one of the lowest in the country, Burnett said. The vast majority of people who leave go to labs that pay more.

For violent crimes testing, not including sexual assault, the forensic biology section received 1,700 testing submissions from Kentucky’s more than 400 police agencies. The average turnaround time for those results was nine months by the end of 2023, Burnett said.

Lexington Public Safety Commissioner Ken Armstrong said by moving some of its DNA testing to a private lab — which has been certified by law enforcement for DNA testing — results will come much, much sooner.

The Lexington council gave initial approval Tuesday for a contract with DNA Labs International.

“This will also possibly help with backlogs at KSP,” said Lexington Police Chief Lawrence Weathers. If Lexington sends its evidence to a private lab, then KSP can work through other police departments’ evidence, he said.

Other smaller cities and counties do not have the money to outsource DNA testing, Armstrong said.

It’s not clear if Lexington would be the first city in Kentucky to pay for private lab DNA testing if it is approved.