Saturday, October 06, 2012

Will UA testing changes at Harris County probation fix problems or create new ones?

The Houston Chronicle has an update on efforts by the new Harris County probation director, Helen Harberts, to revamp the adult probation department's drug testing regimen, setting an aggressive target of Nov. 1st for implementing the changes ("Interim director for probation department wants fast turnaround," Oct. 5"):
The problems, which Harberts called "horrifying," were immediately evident to her when she took the helm Sept. 21 with a six-month contract.

"I have structural problems, training problems, almost every type of problem lumped in here," Harberts said. "I have to fix facilities and structures, methodology, and we need to broaden the scope of our testing; it was not sufficient."

The biggest change, Harberts said, is the testing of urine for the presence of alcohol. In the past, probation officers just used breath-testing machines.

The probation officers, she said, knew that suspects awaiting trial on bail, as well as probationers, were getting away with drinking.
Curiously glossed over in the story were the main reasons the department got in trouble over their urinalysis program: Faulty recordkeeping that allowed samples to be easily misidentified and excessive volume of urinalysis testing ordered by judges that overwhelmed staffers overseeing the program - a situation judges had been warned about for years. Instead, the record keeping issues weren't mentioned while Harberts counter-intuitively aims to expand the scope of urinalysis to test for more stuff, using lower thresholds for "positive" determinations.
Besides retraining all of the technicians and probation officers, Harberts is making threshold levels in drug tests more stringent.

Because drug tests are more sophisticated than "positive or negative," probation departments have to specify a number in the range where the amount of a substance is considered a "positive" test. Harberts said the new levels line up with the scientifically accepted standards, like those used in federal drug testing.

For example, she said, the number of people who have occasionally smoked marijuana without getting in trouble in the past will probably start testing positive for the drug.

Harberts said she wants to help people who are losing their grip on sobriety from falling back into their old habits.

"This is not about 'gotcha,' " she said. "This is about helping people resist cravings and work their programs."
Notably, when Bexar County lowered thresholds for positive tests (in 2008 they switched from in-house testing to a private provider that used lower thresholds), they began to pretty regularly generate "startlingly high numbers of positive drug results." At one point, just a quarter to a third of positive UA results in Bexar were upheld by confirmation testing after the lower thresholds were put into effect. In Bexar, the problem from lower thresholds was aggravated because the department did not want to pay for more expensive confirmation testing, which led to people being jailed based on false positives.

I'd like to know: Are the new, lower thresholds similar to those Bexar implemented (and later abandoned)? Reporter Greg Harman at the San Antonio Current compiled a list in 2008 of common triggers for false positives at the lower thresholds:
So-called “false positives” can come from a variety of factors. Here is just a sample.
Marijuana? Other candidates may be Dronabinol, Advil, Motrin, Midol, Excedrin, Aleve, Phenergan, niacin, hempseed oil, or a kidney infection. Being dark-complected can also put you at higher risk of a positive test, as the body flushes excess skin pigmentation, or melanin (which resembles stoner construct THC), from the system.
Amphetamines? Check those cold meds: ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, propylephedrine, basically the whole damn cold cabinet … Robitussin Cold and Flu, NyQuil, Vicks NyQuil, nasal sprays such as Afrin, asthma meds like Primatine tablets, and a range of prescription drugs.
Opiates? Not just poppyseed muffins; Tylenol with codeine, most prescription pain meds, cough suppressants with dexotromethorphan (DXM), NyQuil, or kidney or liver disease.
Cocaine? Popular antibiotic amoxicillin, tonic water, diabetes, and kidney and liver disease.
LSD? Watch out for migraine medications, including Egotamine, Ergostat, Cafergot, Wigraine, and Imitrex, among others.
In addition to these new questions, nothing in this article addresses the old ones. The problems that led to the DA refusing to use probation department test results didn't arise because probationers cheated on tests or employees weren't trained well, but because departmental systems weren't robust enough to handle the volume of UA tests the department conducted without mixing up which sample belonged to which probationer. One hopes that's being addressed but you wouldn't know it from this coverage. Ms. Harberts seems in this story (which opens with a titillating demonstration of phony penises used to cheat on drug tests) to want to shift the conversation from departmental practices to non-compliant probationers. I understand why she and the judges would prefer to do that, but I also wonder if the bigger problems facing the agency and potential headaches from reducing UA positive thresholds are being downplayed internally the way they were in this article.


Anonymous said...

I don't live in Harris County and this definetly does not affect me directly. However it is disturbing to me to listen to a criminal justice outfit double down to deflect imbedded problems. WTF? As if our criminal justice system is not draconian enough? I take issue with the "gotcha" statement. That's what probation departments do! The criminal justice system is not here to help anyone, this is an empire building move. If they want to play God, they for damn sure better get it right! It is high time we the people stand up to this crap they're selling us. Those falsely incarcerated of false positive piss tests can't do much.

Anonymous said...

The gorse is out of the barn, and they are putting more nails in the doors to keep it closed.

jdgalt said...

Why would they presume (and why would a court allow them) to ban drinking by people on bail who have not yet been convicted of anything? It seems to me the system has no authority to impose punishments in that situation -- only restrictions that could make it harder to flee (such as handing in your passport), and a no-drinking rule does not serve that purpose in any way.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

JDG, that's an excellent point. Part of the problem identified in 2005 by the Justice Management Institute was that judges were attaching too many conditions on people for pretrial release (see this 2005 Grits post). Those sort of extra, "special conditions" which are more about pretrial punishment than preventing skips are one reason the probation department was overwhelmed with too many people assigned to take UAs.

Anonymous said...

John, it is done under the guise of public safety, but in reality it is done to revoke and raise bonds in order to incarcerate and leverage pleas to keep the court docket moving quickly.

coercion said...

JDG, GFB, Anonymous 12:44

Each of you are partially right, but all wrong on the larger reason: IT MAKES $$, lots of money. People on bond are forced to drug test, go to "drug/alcohol counseling" (although there is seldom a program or counseling taking place) and pretty any other condition that can extract a fee. And why wouldn't they agree to it, if it means you can get out and hold your job you will sell your soul. This is the most grotesque form of coercion around.

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Anonymous said...

Harris county has changed there protocol completely. The probationers must almost completely undress to check for the "fake penis". Then someone has to physically watch as the urine comes out of our body. This is wrong on so many levels of privacy. Can anyone please tell us what our rights are? This isn't even done to this extreme in TDC. I don't get it, if they made the mistakes why are the probationers having to spend 3 hours for a court ordered weekly UA test. The procedures are ridiculous

Anonymous said...

They are creating more problems. Probationers are subjected to unreasonable search and rights violations. They are required to almost completely undress before Ua. Someone has to look between their legs and watch urine expelled from their body. This in my opinion is wrong on so many levels. Could someone explain how this is allowed. Unreasonable time spent in the office to adhere to these new procedures. Yesterday it took 3 hours to complete Ua." Unacceptable" all someone has to do is accuse of sexual misconduct. Does Harris county want that.

Anonymous said...

I too am a victim of the new UA testing procedures. You have to drop your pants and underwear below your knees, turn around 2 times, then they watch the urine leave your body. you have to stop peeing in mid-stream and let them see you start up again. It is so humiliating, I actually walked out and almost went home without completing the test, but of course we know what that would mean. I've been on probation for 3 years and haven't failed one test, so why must I now be subjected to this? This should be for people who have previously been caught cheating on tests, or on stricter forms of probation, if anybody. We've got to fight this somehow...