The Sam Houston State University Regional Crime Lab, which is operated by the university’s College of Criminal Justice and located in The Woodlands, started taking evidence from five counties, including Montgomery, in November 2010. A $1.5 million federal grant got the lab up and running.
But those agencies using the lab had agreed to three years of federal funding, after which the lab would complete its transition to becoming self-sustaining through fees, said Assistant District Attorney Warren Diepraam, chief of the Vehicular Crimes Division for the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office.
So the the county can pay $290-$386 for testing at the lab and get results back in 2 weeks, or send the sample to DPS and have it done for free, but not see results for up to nine months.
Diepraam said District Attorney Brett Ligon and SHSU officials have asked U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, to help find additional federal funds to supplement the fees paid by agencies.
“We are hopeful some funding will be found,” Diepraam said.
Montgomery County supplied 86 percent of the lab’s business, and the lab was charging a $200 flat fee for all drug and alcohol tests, Diepraam said.
Now, with the cut in funding, the lab will charge agencies $386 for alcohol tests and $290 for drug toxicology tests used for driving while intoxicated cases.
From November 2010 to October 2011, the lab ran 1,034 drug toxicology tests and 900 of those were from Montgomery County, Diepraam said. During that same time period, the lab analyzed 4,335 controlled substance evidence items, with 86 percent of them coming from Montgomery County, according to a casework overview by the lab.
The Regional Crime Lab will continue to run the drug toxicology and blood-alcohol tests, but all controlled substance evidence tests now will be sent to the Texas Department of Public Safety lab in Austin.
The average length of time for the Regional Crime Lab to turn around controlled substance tests is about two weeks, while the DPS lab can take up to nine months because of the volume of cases it gets from across the state, Diepraam said.
Unaddressed in the story, though, are the costs of delay: If the defendant is unable to make bail, say, in a controlled substance case, that also tacks on thousands of dollars in additional jail costs while wating for tests to come back. When that happens, the overall cost-benefit analysis still favors using the local lab, even at the higher price. Problem is, different revenue streams pay for lab testing and the jail, with different elected officials managing each sliver of the process. So budget myopia may cause prosecutors to send out for testing, even if in the long run it costs Montgomery County more money.
Attorney Paul Kennedy at The Defense Rests adds an additional concern about a possible fix suggested by the local DA:
MoCo District Attorney Bret Ligon now wants to use the asset forfeiture fund to pay for the tests.For the reasons mentioned above, I understand why the DA would want to subsidize the lab. But I agree with Kennedy it's problematic to rely on asset forfeiture funds for any government entity's base budget. Back when Texas used grant money to prop up dozens of regional narcotics task forces around the state, many of those local entities used asset forfeiture funds to pay for local matching under their grants, leading to skewed enforcement priorities.
The problem, of course, is the increased incentive to seize property and file forfeiture actions against defendants. Forfeiture actions serve to tie up defendant's assets and make it that much harder to muster a defense against the state. You will also find out that the vast majority of defendants either default or negotiate settlements in which they receive just a portion of the value of the items seized. The asset forfeiture funds then become a private slush fund for whoever's running the DA's Office (just ask former MoCo DA Michael McDougal). Of course there's no telling where the property seized in Tenaha went.
Grits' view: By the time you add in additional jail costs from delays, the county in most cases is still better off paying to process cases more quickly. Balking at a $300-$400 fee seems foolhardy when the result is $40-$50 per day extra jail costs for up to nine months. (The phrase "penny wise, pound foolish" comes to mind.) The criminal justice system is just that, a system, with a lot of moving parts, so one can never look at cost figures like this in isolation. It's common for "savings" in one part of the system to result in even greater costs elsewhere. So federal subsidies are nice, but if Texans want a massive criminal justice system that, at any point in time, supervises more than 3/4 million adults in prison, jail, on probation and on parole (roughly the population of Austin), then paying for ancillary services like crime labs is an unavoidable expense.
Kennedy suggested three takeaway lessons from the episode: "First, for entities involved in the criminal (in)justice system who rely upon government funds to operate - those funds will diminish or vanish at some point, even if the entity is there to help the state. Second, the lab should have charged a more realistic rate for their services; the excess would allow for a "cushion" when the funding was cut or dropped. Third, no one gives a rat's ass about the people accused of committing a crime." That pretty much sums it up.