Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Hays County will save money eschewing 'free' DPS crime lab services, paying Austin

Grits has suggested for some time that shifting to a fee for service model would help alleviate backlogs and adequately fund state crime labs, mainly because trends are moving in that direction whether folks like it or not. KXAN-TV in Austin reported last Thursday that:
Despite a backlog of cases, the Austin Police Department forensic lab will begin testing cases from Hays County.

Hays County agencies will pay fees to the APD lab to have forensic evidence examined. The testing will include DNA, firearms, drug, and latent prints.

“This is the first time we have offered this to an external entity,” said Bill Gibbons, the forensic services manager for APD.

Gibbons said the extra workload will not slow down APD cases because overtime hours will be used for Hays County testing.
This is precisely why Grits supports fee for service payment structure statewide: If the state won't provide quick testing, counties must pay to have it done elsewhere, shifting to a fee for service model by default. It just happens in a piecemeal, disorderly fashion. Other counties including Dallas already operate fee for service labs, while the public lab in Bexar County provides forensic services outside its jurisdiction (and in, as I understand it) on a fee for service basis.

Grits has argued that "DPS' 'free for everybody' model creates false incentives and is IMO unsustainable as demand for crime lab services is growing much faster than the actual crime rate. Switching to a fee for service model would rationalize the process from a budget perspective and stop taxpayers in jurisdictions with their own crime labs from subsidizing the rest of the state." Taxpayers in jurisdictions with their own crime labs, i.e., urban taxpayers, like in Austin and Houston, are being double-taxed to pay not only for lab costs in their own towns but to pay for lab work in counties that rely on DPS. So at least, I suppose, the Austin crime lab will now get paid to do Hays County's work instead of subsidizing it with taxes, but the fundamental financial disconnect remains.

Incidentally, the TV station reported that paying for forensic services in Austin is cheaper than getting them for "free" from DPS because the wait entails extra local costs, particularly at the jail. They've calculated that:
using the APD lab would save money in the long run.

Hays County has been using the Department of Public Safety lab which services more than 200 counties in Texas. That leads to big backlogs and the longer a case waits to be tested, the more it costs.

The DA’s office estimated that cases taking nearly three months to process in the DPS lab would be finished in almost two weeks using the APD lab.
If DPS shifted to a fee for service model and its backlogs declined - both from reduced submissions and expanded capacity available when counties pay for testing - local governments in small counties across the state would see similar savings. A lot of people are stuck on the idea that crime lab services at DPS are "supposed to be" free. But those "free" services are becoming more and more expensive each day.


Anonymous said...

A small correction.

The lab in Dallas is not a private fee-for-service laboratory as indicated in the post. It is a county-run, public laboratory. The model used in Dallas County is the same as in Bexar County. In both, the county-run lab performs work for investigating agencies, prosecutors, defense attorneys, private citizens, etc., under a cost-recovery model. The price of a service covers the cost incurred by the county in providing that service. Tarrant County operates similarly.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Will correct, thanks. And btw, isn't "cost recovery" the same as "fee for service," as in the labs charge enough to recover their costs?

Anonymous said...

Excellent idea. Is a bill ready for introduction? This Is something that deserves to be brought up this session.

Anonymous said...

8:15 here.

Fee-for-service doesn't require cost-recovery. Private labs are fee-for-service, but they are for-profit. I.e., they charge more than the cost for the service.

My understanding is that counties can run fee-for-service labs in Texas, but they can't run them for profit. It has something to do with it being illegal under state law for a taxing unit of government to give away its property, money, etc. I'm not sure what the precise statute is.

Anonymous said...

My understanding is that DPS is already authorized by statute to charge for their laboratory services. They have just never done it.

Anonymous said...

Texas Criminal Code Sec. 38.35 (a) (5) (c) A law enforcement agency, other governmental agency, or private entity performing a forensic analysis of physical evidence may require the requesting law enforcement agency to pay a fee for such analysis.