Thursday, January 05, 2012

Turf wars may thwart justice solutions in Harris County

Turf wars may scuttle the idea of an independent crime lab in Houston separate and apart from law enforcement, to judge by the response to the mayor's inaugural address ("Parker wants HPD to give up control of crime lab," Houston Chronicle, Jan. 5):
Two of Mayor Annise Parker's goals for her second term, as outlined in her inaugural address this week, may hinge on the cooperation of Harris County.

Parker said she intends to take the city's long-troubled crime lab from the Houston Police Department and make it independent; she also wants to phase out the city jail and house offenders in the county jail instead.
The HPD crime lab has been a headache for city leaders since 2002, when an audit noted unqualified  personnel, lax protocols and shoddy facilities. Last month, HPD said its backlog of untested rape kits could be as high as 7,000. To date, six Houston men have left prison after retesting of evidence indicated they were convicted of crimes they did not commit.
Parker wants to make the lab independent of HPD and the city, overseen instead by a local government board similar to the Port of Houston Authority, whose members are jointly appointed by the city, county and other local municipalities. Mayoral spokeswoman Janice Evans said a proposal may come before City Council this spring.

County leaders say their Institute of Forensic Sciences already is independent, free from law enforcement influence. They point to its respected work and lack of a case backlog. Parker, however, said the city lab's future is not with Harris County.

"The area that I'm in control of is to have an independent crime lab," the mayor said Wednesday. "If that can become a regional crime lab where the county is a full participant, I'd love to see that happen. Sending all our work over to Harris County simply substitutes one government master for another government master."
County officials, by contrast, vowed to move ahead independently with rhetoric that smacks less of partisanship than old-school turf-war bickering, spiced with a smattering of juvenalia. (E.g., "Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said that if Parker thinks she has a better model than the county, she should pursue it on her own.") That said, I'm not sure how any entity with a taxpayer-funded budget can avoid a "government master," so short of creating some new taxing district or some such, your correspondent has difficulty imagining a solution which might please the mayor. Both sides seem entrenched, intractable, perhaps allowing soured personal relationships and partisan spite to interfere with their good sense and the public weal. It wouldn't be the first time, but it's not a great sign.

Meanwhile, Parker suggested phasing out city jails by creating a "sobering center," which sounds not unlike a suggestion from Harris DA Pat Lykos for "detox centers," as a front-end jail alternative:
Parker said the city jails could be phased out even without the type of joint processing center that bond voters rejected in 2007.

The city is negotiating to buy a property that would be used a "sobering center" to divert some inmates from the jail.

"If someone just needs a place to sleep it off, sober up, maybe get connected to some social-service help, we think we can accommodate that," Parker said.

Services, Evans said, could include help for the mentally ill, whom Parker said also must be diverted from jail.

Such steps could reduce the city jail population enough to allow the remaining inmates to be handed to the county, the mayor said.
The second idea makes sense to try, at least. On the crime lab, though, both sides sound needlessly obstructionist, driven more by the motive of defending political turf than improving science at the lab and in the courtroom.

Making crime labs independent is as important to unbiased sciences as "blinding" administrators of suspect lineups and photo arrays in witness identifications. You want crime lab administrators, much less line staff, outside the command and control of law enforcement because you don't want them to have a stake in the outcome. They're scientists; they're not (or shouldn't be) on one or another "side." Grits predicted a couple of years ago independent crime labs would become a political flash point, and it may remain so for the immediate future in Houston until the electorate changes some of the players and compiles a group capable of working together. Until then, without some pay-to-play beneficiary driving the train, an independent crime lab for now remains a good idea without a political constituency, and one that flies in the face of historic jurisdictional turf lines, to boot.

Never is the importance of money and self-interest in politics so apparent as when its absence hinders what everyone agrees are necessary and proper improvements.


Anonymous said...

Parker has clearly stated that she wants control of a crime lab, probably in that cited article. I'd take it away from both Parker and Emmett's band of thieves.

Anonymous said...

"Sobering Center" is nuts. You cannot do that without a full medical staff trained in detoxification. Lykos and Parker are talking about something right out of the Andy Griffith Show.

Anonymous said...

Read the article that talks about the fact that the mentally ill are kept in jail so long that the days there exceed the maximum sentence. They are prayed upon by violent criminals...They are the population least able to defend themselves and they are ill...just as ill as your grandmother with heart problems or your uncle Jo with diabetes..We need to do something humane to deal with them..They are human beings. I think Parker is on the right track..These people who are living under bridges, begging on the corners and living on park benches behind the zoo are someone's brother, sister, mother cousin...usually if they are arrested it is for something stupid and non-violent.

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Hey Grits, IMHO, Mayor Parker should be commended for being brave enough to include the reformation of the criminal justice system in her 'future' outline. Why she never sought to implement these improvements while in office is any ones guess?

I'm very pleased to see that it includes the very moment of arrest (as it should). Who knew that reinventing & reintroducing the Drunk Tank and spanking HPD for decades of blunders would be met with rocks and pitch forks. Remember how much heat we all caught for even sugessting Eyewitness Identification proceedure reforms?

Ultimately, it's the 'taxpayers' that either; wins or (sadly) continues to be complicit as they pick up the tab. Thanks.