Budget cuts may shut down new crime lab in Billings

The state of Montana is facing a quarter billion dollar budget deficit as state revenue has fallen far short of expectations. Now state agencies are forced to make deep cuts to balance the budget. Like the other state agencies, the Department of Justice office must cut ten percent of their budget. That equals to about 3.4 million dollars a year.

Director of communications for the Department of Justice, Eric Sell, said that one of the places the DOJ would be forced to cut would be the crime lab, specifically, the new satellite crime lab that opened last year in Billings.

"Right now, we have one pathologist that does autopsies there, as well as four other employees, some chemists and an assistant to that pathologist," Sell said. "So none of those positions would be cut. They would be moved to the larger crime lab in Missoula."

Sell said this would have an impact on autopsies. He said if the crime lab in Billings gets cut, time would lengthen for those autopsies to get done. Especially if bodies are being transported from Eastern Montana to Missoula.

"We all know that the criminal justice system in Montana, it's no secret- is drugs and you have to have those tested, "Yellowstone District Attorney Scott Twito said. "Having quicker turn-around times for that testing, saves in the long run because then it shortens the duration for that case to be in court. Those cases can be more quickly resolved. It allows for more flexibility in terms of charging, in terms of resolving cases and so there's a definite benefit to having that crime lab."

But Sell said they are exploring any other options to shift funds from special revenue accounts.

"Even if we did have to implement the full 10 percent cuts, we would try and search for money internally to see if we can cover some of these costs so that it can mitigate some of the impact," Sell said.

The director of communications said it's important to note that the budget cuts are just a plan right now for a worst case scenario if the 10 percent reduction were to go into effect. If tax revenue does not pick up, DOJ will not be able to move forward with building the new morgue in Billings that was planned.

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