Sunday, January 15, 2012

Feds nix grants subsidizing SHSU crime lab

Texas' newest crime lab, run by Sam Houston State University in Montgomery County, opened in 2010 with the promise of three years of federal startup funding. But after budget cuts associated with raising the debt ceiling, that funding dried up and the lab has had to nearly double some of its fees. Reported the Conroe Courier (Jan. 6):
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.

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.
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.

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.

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.
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.

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.


Anonymous said...

The cost of testing can be passed along to defendants who plead, or are found guilty. Why dont they try this?

BarkGrowlBite said...

Anon, don't be ridiculous. Most defendants don't have a pot to pee in. They're never able to pay all the fees that are piled up after a conviction and you want to add another fee. Come on, get real!

As for those government grants, will the recipients never learn? They always dry up sooner or later. Agencies that depend on government grants are only fooling themselves and the taxpayers.

gravyrug said...

Relying on asset forfeiture has way too much potential to become a corrupt vicious circle, where law enforcement targets people based on what they can seize rather than threats to public safety. There have already been too many cases where it's been misused.

Peter Houston said...

Keep in mind that politicians are all very territorial about their own perceived interests and the monies they are put in charge of. That observation bears out across party lines and philosophical bearing, those in charge of one part of government loathe to give up what they perceive as "theirs".

As the common perception of the accused is generally negative, whatever lip service is paid to protecting their rights (speedy trial, Bradley, complete investigations of their alleged crimes, and appointments of counsel), it will never be enough for some and always be too much for others. If the political will were there to force the powers that be to take a big picture look, would it be enough to also overcome the widely held conceptions of smoke/fire and that of beating the rap but not the ride?

Those that think this is a recent phenomenon can rest assured that it is not and that whatever advances we have made in one arena are balanced out by advances in the other, the current concern is largely driven by those who really would prefer to save a penny at the expense of a pound.

Anonymous said...

Actually it is possible to pass on most of the fee for drug testing to defendants. This is already being done with much success in many counties. Bexar County Probation office collects hundreds of thousands of dollars to help pay for this important service. It is well worth the price to be granted probation.

Anonymous said...

It is time for government, especially state and local government, to get off the tit of federal grant dollars. The federal government has for far too long been doling out dollars that in many cases are wasted within the criminal justice system. The cj system is a black hole that will never break even (pay for itself) or generate a profit. Public safety is not a break even or for profit proposition and should not be such. Local and state governments need to educate the public that there is a cost to arrest, incarcerating (pretrial and post trial), trying defendants, and supervision services. The costs for drug analysis and lab work is an expense that is a must, and is a cost the local public must bear. Using federal dollars to prolong the inevitable paying of these costs is wrong and misleading. Fortunatley the federal dollars are gone and it is time to pay for these expenses at the local level. Let us be honest with the taxpayers as to what it costs to prosecute a case because public safety has a cost. Public awareness and transparency are always good for government, especially the criminal justice system.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

6:45, drug testing for probationers and controlled substance testing for a criminal case are two completely different beasts. You're right probationers pay for drug tests through fees, but that's after conviction. We're talking about evidence gathered pretrial to SECURE a conviction while the defendant still retains a presumption of innocence. Besides, BGB is right that "Most defendants don't have a pot to pee in. They're never able to pay all the fees that are piled up after a conviction."

Crain Watcher said...

I agree that the public needs to be educated on the costs of this whole tuff on crime they have been sold. I have always said if the tax payers of the county had to foot the entire bill for not only conviction but incarceration also, you would see not only a whole different approach but attitude too. I heard an interesting story from a family member whose love one is on the Crain Unit. It seems the Asst. Warden came into the dorms back in late December and told the inmates that she own the day room, dorms and could take the television away from them and close the day room completely because SHE paid for them and she owned them. She told them she pays for the uniforms they wear also while yelling out them and using profanity to them. Now if the inmates had did this they would have been thrown in the hole and forgotten about. So I guess the state takes money out of her pay check every month to cover the costs of uniform, recreation and utility bills. Now as a tax payer whose does pay property taxes and actually pays for these costs I take offense to all of this. I like many family members and friends were charged $100 this year for medical and the medical on this unit is still substandard. Those televisions and recreational day rooms are paid for from the commissary money we the actual tax payers send our love ones. As far as I know this Warden does not even pay property taxes because she lives in Free State housing. The state of Texas and the tax payers owns that unit and everything associated with the costs to house those inmates and the tuff on crime mess we buy into every year because of the property taxes we pay. See this is a problem when you have a system of unchecked power and the people in charge are confused enough to think that they actually owns state property and this leads to the corruption and misuse of the same properties that are all too common in TDCJ and especially this unit. So I hope the state starts to deduct monies from her pay check now since she owns the actually prison and all of its property. It is funny how the people in prison are punished if they violate the people running the prisons human rights but the people running the prisons have free reign to abuse and violate the human rights of the inmates. I guess this is how the tuff on crime thing really works. Make the county tax payers pick up the bill for incarceration and make the prison employees actually pay for the costs to own these properties as some of them already seem to think they do.

Anonymous said...

The County should look to already estabolished private accredited laboratories to consolidate this testing. The cost mentioned for analysis could be cut in half through privatization of this testing using a facility already streamlined in this capacity. 2 labs in particular are AIT Labs out of Indiana and NMS Labs in Pennsylvania.

Anonymous said...

Talk of private industry efficiencies and streamlining as a given always make me wonder how many people have worked on both sides of the fence. I've seen wild wastes of money in the private sector and incredible dedication in the public sector, neither being automatically better than the other. It comes down to how well a specific organization is set up, funded, overseen, and audited. The stuff that goes on in private labs is at least as scary as the allegations about public sector equivalents, you just don't hear about it for all sorts of reasons.

Anonymous said...

Dear Grits

When I posted the comment about Bexar County collecting fees for drug testing I did mean fees are collected for drug testing to secure a conviction. When an arrest is made the substance found is tested to see if it is an illegal drug. In Bexar County this is mostly done by the Medical Examiners Office. When a person is granted probation this testing fee is assessed to them as restitution. Bexar County is very successful at collecting this fee and the money is sent to SAPD.

Anonymous said...

Often, discussion of efficiencies/cost savings of lab testing by public versus private labs look only at the test costs themselves, and not at the other ancillary costs.

For example, 8:58 offered up two private labs as alternatives. Accepting for the sake of argument that the testing costs are less that the public alternative, the costs of expert witness testimony would undoubtedly be more than the public alternative, especially for out of state labs such as 8:58 suggest.