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Budget of $2 billion cuts lab used to track sex offenders, domestic abusers and human traffickers

JEFF SNYDER - The computer forensics lab at Multnomah County, letting probation officers check the phones and computers of people under their supervision, was considered a major advance a decade ago. This year it's on the chopping block.As Multnomah County prepares a new $2 billion budget to reflect comissioners' priorities, it is poised to eliminate a computer forensic lab used to keep an eye on convicted child pornographers, domestic violence abusers and human traffickers who are out on parole.

The story of how a once highly touted crime-fighting lab operated by the county Department of Community Justice went from being a budgetary golden child to the fiscal chopping block how political priorities can change rapidly.

In March of this year county leaders urged state lawmakers to keep funding flowing to the department or else they might have to cut the lab. The following month they proposed cutting it themselves.

Jay Scroggin, the Department of Community Justice's adult services director, said leaders of his agency didn't want to cut the lab, which uses specialized equipment to check the phones and devices used by people overseen by the department. But he said the department didn't have a choice.

"Mostly all of these cases have to do with keeping victims safe in the community," he said, but added the department had no alternatives given the budget cuts focused on the department.

The lab "is utilized a lot. We value the returns we get from it. But we just can't afford that program any more at the (level) of the budget cuts that we were tasked with."

The lab is one of many cuts in a budget proposed by Chair Deborah Kafoury that shifts county funds to new priorities, such as $11 million for a new mental health "resource center" for the homeless in downtown Portland, $2 million for a new office to investigate county employee discrimination complaints, and $200,000 to address union and employee concerns about wage theft by county construction contractors.

Budget hearings have gone for a month. But when it comes to the lab, the messaging has changed significantly.

Last year county budget documents used to brief commissioners and the public described the lab as "a unique critical service for community justice agencies throughout the state" that permits "parole officers to intervene early and prevent … behavior from escalating into new criminal activity that involves costly incarceration."

Jeff Snyder, who ran the lab before his retirement, contends the budget cut reflects a change in balance between those who see DCJ's mission as one of social work and rehabilitation, versus probation's more traditional law enforcement role.

The lab, he said, is crucial for overseeing offenders who seem perfectly compliant with the terms of their parole until you check their phones and devices: "behind the scenes on their computer, they're doing everything you can imagine," he said.

The lab was set up with federal funds requested by county leaders who promised to use the lab to help neighboring cities and counties. It's one of the few county probation computer forensics labs in the country, and drew national attention when it was set up.

A 2011 article in the Portland Tribune talked about how the lab was used to expose identity theft, bomb-making, elder fraud and the activities of an offender convicted of attempted rape who turned out to be a member of an organization of pimps who traded prostitutes up and down the West Coast.

In March, before the Legislature, the lab was used as an argument to keep state funds flowing to the department.

The forensics lab "provides valuable service for our Sex Crimes, Gang and Domestic Violence teams," Erika Preuitt, director of the department, testified last year to the Oregon Legislature.

Other similar statements have been made over the years. Christi Winters, an examiner in the lab, in 2015 testified to lawmakers that a proposed bill that would have blocked the lab's work would "seriously jeopardize community correction's public safety mission."

Since then, the lab has been cut from three positions to two. It's not quite as powerful as it used to be since people more frequently store things in cloud-based memory, making it harder for law enforcement to access. And some insiders say the gang unit in the probation office doesn't use the lab as much as they used to. But it still works on dozens of cases.

With regard to cutting the lab, some county insiders have suggested that the FBI's regional forensics lab could take on the work that Multnomah proposes to abandon. But Snyder is skeptical that will happen given the federal lab's workload.

"I was assigned there for eight years, and can tell you that will not be the case," he said.

In April a county budget advisory committee appointed by the board wrote that despite the lab's good work, it is an "unsupportable expense in these times." But the committee recommended the board restore $100,000 of the cut to fund a staffer to continue to working in the FBI's regional forensics lab.

So far the board has not done so.

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