Friday, June 01, 2007

Unreliable urinalyses accuse innocent people

Besides the fact that they cost less, why do Texas probation and parole agencies use flawed urinalysis tools that make it possible, even likely that an innocent person will be falsely accused of drug use?

Gotcha! It was a trick question: There is no other reason. Every time this issue comes up there is no credible justification forthcoming from officials giving these tests. Houston Chronicle columnist Lisa Falkenberg reports today on:

long-standing concerns over the accuracy of drug-testing methods at Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

In smaller offices, such as Huntsville, samples are tested in-house by parole officers, not by technicians at certified labs, Collier confirmed. He couldn't tell me offhand how much training the officers get. The offices regulate themselves.

TDCJ uses quick screening tests. These are sensitive to false positives, said Anthony Okorodudu, clinical chemistry director at the University of Texas Medical Branch.

Yet TDCJ has no reliable way of checking for error. If it gets a positive, another part of the same sample is run through the same machine.

Results are not confirmed through a different, more advanced testing method, as is the industry standard in professional labs. ...

Of course, the results are still admissible in parole-board hearings and can lead to revocations, if the offender refuses treatment or has more dirty tests.

Falkenberg frames the issue in terms of "Due process for everyone," but really this is about actual innocence, not technical niceties - false postive tests accuse parolees of using drugs when they didn't actually do them.

It's not just Texas parole departments where undertrained workers conduct flawed "quick screen" urinalyses with little training or oversight. Earlier this year the SA Express News' Elizabeth Allen wrote a story revealing how the Bexar County probation department knowingly condoned false positives (because confirming tests would cost too much) and let urine samples sit around unrefrigerated too long before testing them. (See this Grits post.) The Bexar probation department threw out 15,000 samples last year because they were too old to accurately test.

I've heard about this problem now forever - most criminal defense lawyers know the tests are unreliable, and once or twice a year a reporter somewhere around the state stumbles onto the topic and writes it up as a local story, with the inevitable result that nothing changes. But this is happening everywhere in the state, and at great taxpayer expense. At this point if the cheaper tests aren't accurate or confirmable - and they aren't - they shouldn't be used on anyone. It'd be better not to test at all than knowingly tolerate false positives.


Anonymous said...

The quick or "desktop" tests used are fragile little creatures. They have to be stored at certain temperatures and have a short expiration date. Unless someone pays attention to how the tests are handled in every aspect (were they transported to the office in a 100 (+) degree vehicle, stored in a room without temperature control and kept past their time?)-if not, then they aren't worth pissing on- pun intended.

Anonymous said...

I am a parole officer with TYC, and we use the in-office test kits.
But before we can go to a hearing, we must send the specimen to a certified lab for re-testing.
I'm shocked that others don't do the same.

Anonymous said...

This is not only a problem with parolees , it is also critical inside TDCJ. There are many prisoners who get time tacked on for having a dirty UA and the method used is less than reliable . But there is nothing an incarcerated individual can do to defend himself . Another reason for over crowding .

JT Barrie said...

The cost of the test and the status of those tested determines the quality of the test. We don't test anyone who has status - except for show. The cost to tester of a false positive could be catastrophic if the harmed individual claims damages. How do you impair the reputation of a convicted felon?
This is compounded by the fact that convicted felons have fewer resources. That's often why they get convicted in the first place. It is much harder to convict an OJ Simpson than it is to convict a Crip or Blood member.

Anonymous said...

Well Well Well Well, it is about time that someone recognize this type of pissy behavior. As a officer, I am responsible for looking directly at the felons private area while he urine in a cup, then I carry the cup to another area an place the cup(with felon sign documentation), there is sit 1,2,3 or more days before another officer picks up the cooler from my office then drive the cooler around town before making it to it final destination. Where the lab tech test and rerun on the same machine then there is a sometime negative UA or most time positive UA. First the officer should not be responsible for handling such job and not being properly trained as a technician to do this type of work, second, there job is to supervise felon and not supervise and watch felon urine in a cup. Get some of the director's money and pay a professional to handle this type of job. Again I am glad that someone notice, special thanks to the one State Representative who is very concern about officer's doing this type of job.

Anonymous said...

State Rep is Pena- Huh!!

Bexar County just got backed up again and had to send 5,000 to an outside lab. Most of the urine had been sitting out for 2 to 6 weeks unrefrigerated. I trust our machine but I do not trust weeks old urine that is tested.

Also when the volume of defendants is more than the lab can handle you have to tell the judges and come up with a plan. Not in Bexar County, Fitzgerald is too silly to act on anything of real community safety and just lets us get backed up. Piss poor management and a waste of tax payers' dollars.

Anonymous said...

Why give urine tests in prison?

Fix the problem with the drugs getting into prison! That is cheaper and the right thing to do!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@2:15 - no the legislator mentioned in the article was actually John Whitmire:

"Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, got legislation passed two sessions ago that made only certified urinalyses admissible in court for probation cases. His office plans to get the law extended for parole."

And @ 2:19, I'm with you - I don't understand when or why they'd do drug tests IN prison, at least without specific suspicions.

Anonymous said...

I believe this issue is critical because high tech machines are not always the answer, and I believe labs are not always the answer. On-site assay type tests have proven about 98-99% accurate depending the vendor. My research is at my office. However, generally speaking, it is quick, accurate, and for the most part simple.It is similar to a pregnancy test. If the offender denies, then send the sample for a confirmation test. This will lower the UA costs and lower the budget, reduces time, and controls when the sample that is tested(right then and there). Shipping smaller quantities to the lab will reduce cost and time delay.

Texas is so "treatment trained" due to lawyers pleading in court to keep the drug user in the community, and folks in Austin being lobbied by big treatment providers with lots of $$$$, They will say nearly anything and bring doubt with anything including labs. I don't blame them. It's a living. It is shame on the rest of us for not looking beyond the headlines. If samples are dumped in Bexar County, so what! The court will pat the drug user on the head and tell them to not do it again. Not a big deal.Bexar Co. attempted to fix the high volume of UA's with a machine. I don't blame them. I would to looking at the volume put out since nobody really spends anytime in jail for drugs. Everybody bonds out (if they have a lawyer), so the drug users roam the streets awaiting violation hearings.

We spend a ton on treatment in our system. I vote not to test anyone since it does not mean anything. We are wasting too much money on this issue. When the drug users rob, steal, abuse, sexually molest others including children, and say I was high and didn't mean to do it, well, so what. . .

Remember we are a treatment State. Drug users are no threat to us. I don't know how many times I have heard it is "only drugs." Meanwhile I hear parents and grandparents being robbed by their own to get a fix. Most have spent a fortune on rehab centers mulitple times just so little Mary or Johnny can dodge a jail sentence. Once out, back at it again. When is enough, enough? I would like a sound answer that is not prompted by a brain-washed individual who buys into the drug user is not a criminal and treatment is the answer. Remember the treatment contractors love probation, and the more doubt about the UA's the more clients they will continue to run through the system. It is all about the money.

Private attorneys covertly undermining the credibility of the UA's testing process to win cases in court. If this wasn't the case, then someone shed the light on me as to why the Austin crowd of attorneys want to create legislation to be more treatment minded and less accountable minded. Attorneys would make less money at violation hearings if judges stop looking the otehr way with the drug users. Always follow the money as to how laws are established and policy is made. Meanwhile back at the ranch, these judges are in the dark and normally persuaded by a private attorney the system is broke and it's not the offender's fault.

Therefore, I plead with the rest of the Texas to keep it simple and go for the on-site assay test and send only the needed samples for confirmation. Sending every sample to the lab is not good business and a burden to the tax payer since Judges and the Austin crowd refuse to make the offender pay for the test. By the way in Bexar County it is $20 for each offender whether there is 1 test given or 5000 test given. Can you imagine if the offender is on supervision for 10 years? Dumb. . .dumb. . . and dumb . . .

Anonymous said...

Anonymous at 5:20, You really seem cynical regarding the current Texas answer to illegal drug usage. Following your line of thinking to it's logical conclusion would be to decriminalize drug usage. I agree with this approach for a lot of drug use that really doesn't harm anyone. For the hard core drug usage, incarceration doesn't work and rehabilitation efforts are not always successful so I think you would just give up. In fact rehabilitation does work, I've seen it myself. Of course it doesn't always work the first time but at least it works sometimes and that alone makes it worth the time, effort and cost. Drug treatment saves lives, that is reason enough for me. Faulty UA testing just ruin lives and that doesn't do anybody any good. Anything we do should be done in the best possible way otherwise it isn't worth doing.

Anonymous said...

PLEASE, I've worked in adult probation in bexar county (UGH-yes I know) for 20 years and I've NEVER seen a probationer sent to prison for ONE positive UA. Some have been tested weekly and the numbers go up and down, but for someone to really suggest that a probationer is in TDC for ONE FAILED UA is hard to believe. I have probationers that don't pay fees, miss reports, pick up new misdemeanor/felony cases, fail to follow curfews and other violations and the judges ignore it!!
For those of you who believe drugs aren't hurting anyone, I request you come to San Antonio, Dallas or Houston and speak to the relatives of those that were KILLED because of the drug trade, and then tell me it should be DE-CRIMINALIZED. You speak but don't care about those who die dealing, those who overdose and those that suffer because of the addicted. GET REAL, STOPPING THE DRUGS FROM ENTERING OUR COUNTRY IS THE ONLY TRUE ANSWER. BUT NO POLITICIAN WILL ATTEMPT TO FUND THE WAR THA IS NEEDED. WE WON"T EVEN PROTECT OUR BORDERS!!!!!!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

5:20 suggests that we "send only the needed samples for confirmation." That's the problem. Many agencies don't.

If you've personally done 5,000 UAs, let's say you're right there's a 2% error rate, and half of those are false postives. That's 50 people falsely accused (more if samples are not kept at the right temperature, etc.). In situations like the parole departments described where they simply act on these tests without confirmation, that's a lot of innocent people doing unnecessary time in aggregate, given how many UAs are done in Texas. Even for those where confirmation tests are done, it's a lot of stress and hassle to be wrongfully accused.

It's simple: If you won't pay for the confirming tests, don't do them at all. And consider scaling back regular UAs to offenders in active treatment programs to concentrate resources where they do the most good.

Anonymous said...

10:23 -what's your point? People who kill people should be prosecuted. People who steal should be prosecuted. Whether they're drunk, high or sober is irrelevant.

If the only solution is to stop drugs at the border, then there is no solution. There aren't enough cops in the world. Legalization of booze solved the problems you're talking about in that industry, and if things are as bad as you say that's what they should do with drugs, too.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and if people aren't being revoked for dirty UAs, and they're not accurate anyway, why bother doing them?