SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The State Police crime lab,  after several years of battling,  have successfully cut the backlog of outstanding cases in half. Since 2016, the lab struggled to keep up with the case load in West Virginia, but leaders say a plan of action put into place is paying off.

“A plan of action had to be made to determine how we were going to reduce and eventually eliminate the backlog,” said Sheri Lemons, Director of the Forensic Lab.

One of the biggest problems is the State Police Crime Lab is the only full service lab which can process evidence in criminal cases in West Virginia. It’s used by not only the West Virginia State Police by every police department and sheriff’s department in West Virginia. State Police Superintendent Jan Cahill said the lab was quite simply over worked and under staffed for many years..

“There’s 800 different departments and agencies who use our forensic lab free of charge,” he said.

Therefore the plan included adding to the staff and improving funding for the work.  Lemons knew that wasn’t an overnight fix.

“Our staff are highly educated and highly trained,” she explained. “It takes some of them up to two years in a specific discipline to even begin casework. We wanted to establish a system in which there were incentives for them to stay.”

Previously because of the pay and difficult circumstances staff would leave the lab just as they were getting fully trained.  Using grants, improved funding which was prioritized by the Justice Administration, and a restructuring the career progression sequence the lab now has a staff of about 50 analysts.

“I feel like we’re at a level now we always should have been with the case load we’re expected to carry,” Lemons said.

The lab started this year with 2,300 pending cases. The backlog at the end of 2016 was 5,000 cases. Accelerating work on the backlog helps move cases more quickly through the justice system. The State Police estimated in 2017 that improving the turnaround time for pending cases could reduce jail expenses by between $6 million and $15 million annually.