Sunday, September 02, 2012

DPS reaching limits to unsustainable crime-lab model: Tells agencies to reduce DNA, drug testing requests

Struggling with massive backlogs and ever-expanding caseloads, the Texas Department of Public Safety crime labs have asked departments to limit the amount of evidence sent to them for testing in controlled substances cases, as well as limiting the number of DNA tests they'll do in a given case. DPS provides these services at no cost to the local jurisdiction, which has led to massive backlogs. Reported the Corpus Christi Caller-Times ("Department of Public Safety crime labs limits (sic) DNA, drug testing," Sept. 1):
The department sent a letter to law enforcement and district attorneys statewide announcing the changes that limit the DNA and drug testing crime lab technicians will perform.

Controlled substance and blood alcohol cases have increased by nearly 500 percent within the past six years in the 13 crime lab facilities in Texas, according to an Aug. 6 letter.

Because of this, the labs cannot conduct the test reports in a timely manner, the letter states.

Starting next month, the labs will not test certain quantities and types of drugs in misdemeanor cases including suspected marijuana or synthetic marijuana less than 4 ounces, an array of prescription pills less than an ounce or identifiable prescription pills.

The department doesn't want law enforcement to send those misdemeanor cases unless a prosecutor specifically requests the lab reports for trial. ...
Another letter sent to various law enforcement explained crime lab analysts also will soon restrict the amounts of DNA per case they will test.

The policy change, which also went into effect Saturday, include only two DNA tests for each burglary offense and 10 for each homicide.
"In a murder scene you may have hundreds of pieces of evidence and now we're limited to send our top 10," Corpus Christi Police Capt. Billy Breedlove said.
That doesn't mean, of course, that more testing can't be done. Some larger agencies have their own crime labs, and others use fee-for-service labs where they can send as much evidence for testing as they can afford.

Still, it's notable that, despite massive recent crime-lab expansions, DPS has basically raised the white flag. Their model of providing unlimited, free crime lab services for local jurisdictions is fundamentally untenable. I'm frankly surprised it took this long to recognize it.

Coincidentally, since I hadn't yet seen this report, just yesterday Grits had opined 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. It's probably something the Legislature should consider next session." This news makes me think that suggestion is more ripe, even, than I'd suspected. There's nothing "free" about the criminal justice system, and for crime labs it's probably time to shift to a pay-as-you-go approach before backlogs get even worse.


Anonymous said...

EVERY felony conviction getting probation requires a DNA sample. No one seemed to worry about the cost when they passed that idiotic law. Why start now? Lockin' 'em up and throwin' away the key costs money folks.

doran said...

Another good reason to decriminalize possession of pot and maybe some of the hallucinogens.

Anonymous said...

Alternatively, there is a very real possibility that if you push these costs back onto smaller counties, they just won't utilize forensic testing; or will at least seek out less expensive options. The charges will still be filed and prosecuted. What you will have, however, is an increased likelihood of mistakes and wrongful convictions. What are the costs associated with that?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

3:18, isn't that also a risk from limiting DNA testing in murder cases to 10 items? Rationing is going to occur one way or another on the basis of available funds. The question is how to manage the shortage of resources - just pretending the backlogs will go away if they ignore them isn't a realistic option.

Anonymous said...

It's absolutely a risk. Which is why the legislature needs to adequately fund the DPS labs and, where warranted, assist the locally funded labs. The Houston PD crime lab scandal is the perfect example of what can happen in the absence of state oversight. And there have been others since then. If Texas is going to be effective and progressive in the use of forensic science in our criminal justice system, the oversight, application and funding will necessarily come from Austin.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

That's fine to say, 10:00, but for at least the 2013 legislative session, simply throwing money at the problem, much less "assist[ing] the locally funded labs" is highly unlikely in the current budget environment.

9:31 above makes a good point about the extra costs from taking DNA samples on every felony conviction. Similarly, tons of resources are expended on testing tiny amounts of controlled substances for less-than-a gram-cases. I agree DPS crime labs could use a bigger budget (though in truth the Lege has been quite generous to them), but some thought must also be given to reducing demand for these services, which is rising FAR faster than the actual crime rate. As things stand they're unsustainable.

Anonymous said...

DPS is making up for lost revenue by duplicating services already offered by other state agencies. The Regulatory Services Division currently enforces and regulates several programs already administered by independent state agencies. The trick to this is that the revenue is specifically excluded from going back into the general fund, meaning they keep it all. It's the next best thing to seizing assets and forfeitures. DPS has adopted a regulatory scheme that administers cash register justice and enhances their coffers. Rest assured that none of the money goes to the crime lab or public safety programs. No, it goes toward encroaching upon other state agency functions.

Anonymous said...

The DNA cost to the probationer is about $40 and is included in court cost that the offender pays.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Yes, 1:29, but DPS only has so many people in their DNA division and when they're processing new samples they're not working on reducing the backlog.