The Houston Police Department has developed a backlog of more than 300 cases in which firearm forensics have not been performed, the third major area of evidence awaiting analysis to build up as the crime lab works to achieve full legitimacy after being engulfed in scandal for years.
Despite years of effort aimed at cleaning up the problems that led to the wrongful convictions of at least four men, backlogs for thousands of cases also have developed in rape kits and fingerprint analysis.
Although the recent issues highlighted in an audit of HPD's fingerprint unit do not involve the crime lab — the two are separate entities — police in both instances have cited ongoing staff shortages, retirements and training requirements to explain the backlog of evidence. ...
The backlogs cause two major problems in the justice system, said JoAnne Musick, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association.
First, she said, because people often are arrested before evidence is processed, innocent people are jailed and forced into preliminary legal proceedings unnecessarily. Second, criminals who may be identified through forensic testing are able to remain on the streets and, potentially, commit new crimes.
HPD's backlog on processing fingerprints is currently 6,000 cases, reports Olson.
Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos says in the article that the backlog argues for making the crime lab independent. That could be true, to the extent that the problem is the police department treats it like a dependent stepchild and diverts resources toward patrol or other activities. But whether the lab is independent or part of the police department, the problem of chronic backlogs stems from a shortage of resources - it's going to cost Houston a lot more money to fix this problem, either way, than they're spending on forensics now. The only other option is to choose not to devote forensic resources to certain categories of offenses, and if backlogs become too onerous, to expand those categories. That's a difficult array of political options, but somebody's going to have to make some tough choices to get the seemingly flailing Houston crime lab on track.