Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Upward budget pressure at crime labs

A pair of stories from out of state underscore two sources of upward budget pressure at crime labs that Grits suspects apply equally here in the Lone Star State. Crime labs are expensive, labor-intensive operations, and Texas and other states have traditionally underinvested in them, leading to significant backlogs. Meanwhile, a combination of court rulings and technological innovation will ratchet up demand considerably for these services in the near term.

First, re: court rulings. In Melendez-Diaz and subsequent cases, Justice Anontin Scalia has led a US Supreme Court majority in reinvigorating the Confrontation Clause, requiring crime lab experts to testify in person (in order to be cross-examined) instead of simply sending written reports which cannot be interrogated. The inevitable result is crime lab scientists going to court more often, and in Arkansas, 42% of crime lab scientists' courtroom trips last year did not result in giving testimony, reported AP (Jan. 22):
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported Sunday ( ) that lab analysts such as DNA specialists, drug chemists and medical examiners traveled to county courthouses around the state but ended up not testifying 238 out of 573 times last year. That means 42 percent of the lab experts' court trips didn't yield any testimony in 2011.
I've never seen similar data regarding Texas crime labs, but I'll bet the Arkansas situation is not unique. After Melendez-Diaz (2009), it's almost inevitable crime lab scientists would go to court more often without testifying. Certainly the SCOTUS justices were aware of that fact during their discussion at oral argument. There's a pricetag associated with that judgment, however, and this story out of Arkansas is the first time I've seen somebody put a dollar figure to it.

Grits was also interested to see a story out of Connecticut, where the overwhelmed state crime lab established new guidelines discouraging agencies from submitting evidence:
Police agencies across Connecticut are now being asked for the first time to limit their submissions to the state lab under new guidelines that took effect Jan. 1. The state also plans to hire 25 to 35 new lab workers to reduce the backlog to a manageable level, but it may take two to three years before the new employees are trained and ready to work, said Michael Lawlor, criminal justice aide to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
The number of DNA cases that have not been started at the forensics lab in Meriden skyrocketed from less than 250 in mid-2006 to nearly 3,900 last year, according to the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, which oversees the lab. During the same time period, the number of lab workers has decreased about 10 percent to 90. The wait for DNA testing in many cases is more than three years.

If no extra staff were added, officials say the lab's DNA unit by April 2013 would only be able to perform testing in felony cases that are reaching the statute of limitations for prosecution. The lab wouldn't be able to test samples in hundreds of other criminal cases.

The lab is also dealing with backlogs in other types of evidence testing, including nearly 1,700 firearms cases and 1,400 latent fingerprinting cases.

The state lab's backlog follows a national trend. DNA casework backlogs at labs across the country increased from about 38,000 in 2005 to nearly 112,000 in 2009, according to the latest available U.S. Justice Department statistics. In addition to an increase of samples from crime scenes, most states have passed laws requiring DNA testing of criminals, adding to many labs' backlogs.
The advent of "touch DNA" and the expansion of DNA evidence to nonviolent offenses like burglary mean the near-term growth potential for DNA examiners may be limited only by how much state and local governments are willing to pay for them.  Add to that forensic scientists spending more time in the courtroom away from the lab, and crime labs are being asked to do much more with fewer scientists available to perform the tasks.

This problem isn't going away: State budget writers will be grousing about crime labs as money pits for many years before lab capacity finally catches up to demand.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My experience from working in a crime lab is that one of the best ways to contain costs is for analysts to give feedback to investigators about what testing should be done on what evidence items, based on the case circumstances.

For instance, doing DNA testing on the fingernail clippings of a homicide victim might be a useful thing under some circumstances, but might not be useful under other circumstances. In a simple drive-by shooting case, doing DNA on fingernail clippings of the victim is not going to be of value. In a sharp-force injury case or a blunt-force injury case, testing for the fingernail clippings is absolutely going to be of value.

Sometimes investigators or attorneys don't make good, cost-effective decisions even with lots of input from laboratory staff. I recall one case where a homicide victim was shot in the chest, and the crime scene produced lots of expirated blood. The DA on the case wanted every item of evidence screened and tested. The screening tests alone cost $60,000, and then there was DNA testing on top of that. But it was all came back to the victim's blood. The lab staff tried to talk the DA out of the testing, but to no avail. It was a complete and utter waste of resources.