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 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.
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."
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 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.
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.
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.