Monday, October 22, 2012

Texas crime-lab capacity expanding slower than demand

Grits noticed a couple of recent stories I'll pass along about expanding crime lab capacity in South Texas. See:
Bexar County Commissioners in their latest budget approved "a $3.5 million renovation at the three-story medical examiner's office and criminal laboratory." Part of that is to expand space for much needed additional ME staff, reported the Express-News. "A dozen investigators who are licensed peace officers inhabit the first floor, where they each work about 1,100 cases a year. White lab coats hang in cubicles, decorated with yellow 'CRIME SCENE' scarves and mouse pads, where investigators receive calls alerting them to deaths. 'They are swamped,” Frost said. “We need more investigators, and the capital improvements will extend their offices.'” They're expanding the evidence vault and creating more space for autopsies and corpses, as well as adding room for growth in crime lab staff. That said, a bigger building may make room for additional analysts but that's a far cry from budgeting for their salaries. So the Bexar expansion won't expand capacity, per se, except for capacity to manage backlogs, unless county commissioners also approve hiring additional analysts and crime-scene investigators.

Meanwhile, in Laredo, reported the Sun, DPS's:
new Laredo crime lab will be 17,143 square feet. Completion is projected to be in September 2013. Initial staffing level is to be 10 lab employees with room to increase to 15 employees.

Services offered in the Laredo lab will be controlled substance analysis, firearms/tool mark examinations and serology/DNA analysis, all provided at no cost to law enforcement agencies.

Law enforcement officers served by the Laredo crime lab will no longer have to submit evidence for these services to existing labs located 100-150 miles from Laredo.

Congressman Henry Cuellar will also announce the secured funding of $250,000 federal dollars to be used for the new extended DPS Crime lab in equipment, as allocated by Webb County Sheriff Martin Cuellar.

In aggregate, the state recently lost some crime lab capacity when the fee for service lab run by Sam Houston State in Montgomery shut down this summer because of an issue with its lease. DPS crime labs in particular face backlogs so large they've begun to limit testing submissions, and overall capacity doesn't appear to be expanding nearly as fast as demand.


Anonymous said...

In my opinion, this may be the single most important criminal justice issue the legislature will deal with next session. Given the increasing reliance on forensic testing by law enforcement, prosecutors, and even defense attorneys; we need more and better funded crime labs in this state. Realistically, this a matter that must be addressed at the state level as should the matter of quality control. Reducing the likelihood and potential for wrongful convictions, increasing opportunities for meaningful post-conviction relief for those who might be wrongfully convicted--both of these objectives are inherently connected in many instances to the availability of quality forensic testing. This is not a liberal or conservative issue. It's simply a matter of doing what we can to improve our system and making sure we're getting it right.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

It's a biggie, I agree - and there's no concerted advocacy interest pushing for more crime lab funding. Not in the same way there is, for example, for privatized mental health hospitals or building more private-run ISFs. The only monied interests here, and they're not big players, are the private labs, and their interest is in limiting growth of public sector labs so they gobble up a greater share of future growth.

I wonder if, especially with all the changeover in House leadership, many folks at the Lege are paying attention to the fact that lab backlogs are reaching crisis mode? The story about DPS labs refusing certain low-level samples and even limiting samples in murder cases surprisingly got little statewide play or attention. To me it's a big deal, which is why I write about it here, but you notice it's never a topic greeted with much interest, much less the urgency it probably deserves.

Anonymous said...

In this era of fiscal austerity, I'm not sure that any additional criminal justice spending will be a major priority at the Lege.

With that said, I think if the concept could be presented to the the key committee members and shown to be supported by all interested parties, i.e., law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys, Innocence Project, etc., maybe a little extra funding could be freed up. You never know.

Anonymous said...

There is no single, simple solution to the capacity problem. But one necessary element to the solution, which has been discussed here previously, is the revamping of the DPS lab system to a fee-for-service/cost recovery model. That would immediately do two good things: 1) it would force agencies and DA offices to think about what they need tested at the front end, and create an economic incentive to only do what is needed; and 2) it would encourage cities in and around metropolitan counties that have their own fee-for-service laboratories to use those laboratories rather than the free DPS labs.

Anonymous said...

"I'm not sure that any additional criminal justice spending will be a major priority at the Lege."

There's always new money for jail space. Especially with the tea partiers headed that way. They don't mind more spending, as long as it's by them.