Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Shortage in lab capacity contributes to Tarrant jail overcrowding

I wrote a year ago how the failure to promptly test drug samples was clogging up Texas court systems. Now, forensic labs statewide have reached a state of crisis. As those that couldn't be accredited close down, inmates wait for weeks or months in jail for lab results, especially in drug cases.

Today Anthony Spangler has a good article on the subject in the Fort Worth Star Telegram ("Lab backlog means justice delayed, even denied," Sept. 5) focusing on how the growing backlog contributes to Tarrant County jail overcrowding, even forcing dismissal of some drug cases when lab results didn't come back in time. Wrote Spangler:

A backlog in evidence-testing is creating delays throughout the criminal justice system, leaving prosecutors and local law enforcement authorities struggling to bring some cases to trial.

The delays, particularly in drug cases, have led to the dismissal of at least two cases and left dozens of inmates sitting in the crowded Tarrant County Jail waiting for lab results.

Ten crime labs have closed statewide, including one private lab in Fort Worth, since the state last year required them to be accredited through the Texas Department of Public Safety. The remaining 26 labs have seen tremendous increases in requests to test suspected drug samples, DNA and other evidence.

The number of requests for chemistry work through the Tarrant County medical examiner's office, for example, has more than doubled in the last four months, compared with the same period in 2005.

It will take a long time to replace those ten labs' capacity, probably several years, realistically, and until then the legal system simply must live with the delays. Prosecutors have 90 days to take a case to the grand jury for inmates waiting in jail, and 6 months for those who are out on bond.

Exacerbating the dilemma, Tarrant judges give very few personal bonds. In other counties, many such defendants might be released pending the outcome of lab tests, but Tarrant judges give far fewer personal bonds than elsewhere in the state. That means judges could do a lot to help manage the situation, if they're willing, by releasing more low-level offenders from jail pending trial. Already defendants are running up on the 90 day mark in jail waiting for drugs to be tested. Reported Spangler, "In a few cases, drug suspects have been released on bail because lab results were not available in time to present their cases before a grand jury."

The politics of bail has been a hot topic in Tarrant County legal circles this year, and the statewide crisis in forensic lab capacity (and quality) adds more fuel to the fire.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice story, but it really belongs in the main stream media where hang-wringing and finger-pointing is a way of life for that readership.

The War on Drugs is like the War on Terror in that they provide funding to the 'right' people for a 'war' that will never end. Cha-ching.

This 'get tough' judge is only costing people money and not delivering cost-effective justice.