Thursday, November 08, 2012

Will new, 'anti-government' Lege invest in criminal justice system? Crime lab edition

Grits cannot understand why it is that Corpus Christi media not only consistently scoop their competitors around the state when it comes to covering recent, important changes at DPS crime labs, they almost seem to be the only market where local reporters are consistently interested in the issue. Most recently, a local TV station examined DPS' evidence backlog, noting that:
DPS in Austin recently issued a letter to all law enforcement and district attorneys with some troubling details stating that "seizures and submissions have increased" and that "blood alcohol cases has also skyrocketed." It goes on to say that it has resulted in a "significant impact on the ability of the laboratory system to conduct controlled substance analysis in a timely manner."

And that means making some temporary changes. To be able to lighten the load on the labs, a limit on how many items can be tested in DNA has been set. No more than ten items can be sent to the lab for testing. before, investigators had no limit.

The county also decided that when it comes to drug cases, our lab for now will only test harder drugs.
There's been surprisingly little media coverage nor, so far, public discussion of the need to further expand DPS crime lab capacity in the face of recent rationing. One wouldn't expect the agency to make a dent in the problem for less than a low-nine figure investment. In its Legislative Appropriations Request [pdf], the agency asked for an additional $20 million for additional controlled substances and DNA analysts, but from all I've heard that's a stopgap figure; it would cost more to proactively prepare for the upward growth curve in demand for crime lab services. OTOH, outsourcing the backlog in the long-run could cost even more.

Crime labs and an expanded number of forensic beds at state mental hospitals are arguably the two criminal-justice related areas where underinvestment in the face of rapidly rising demand has reached critical stages, with large backlogs coming to openly hinder administration of the justice system. It's difficult to say whether those two items are even on the radar screen of state budget writers, but I suspect if not, there will soon be folks from the counties teeming forth to educate legislators - including the astonishing 49 new, rookie legislators! - behind the scenes. It'll be an interesting quandary for a Tea-Party skewed Legislature. Now that, as Paul Burka put it, "Texas politics [has fallen] into the hands of folks who see no use to government at all," will the Lege invest in core state criminal-justice functions beyond the prison system, smartly cut them, or just allow them to decay?

From my limited knowledge of infrastructure costs for these core government functions, the Legislature could invest between $300 and $500 million just on crime labs and new forensic beds (plus staffing and support) without anyone accusing them of immodesty. There will be contractors who want to privatize the competency restoration function, but they bring perverse incentives to the table and in the near term the state needs to physically construct more beds, whoever will run them. Meanwhile, DPS crime labs could shift to a fee for service model, which Grits has supported, but even then, present capacity would not long be sufficient Alternatively, the state can limp along with the status quo until some court order or other unseen development in the future spurs them build more capacity or rapidly privatize services. Governing is hard. Stay tuned for the answers in the coming 83rd biennial Texas House of Mirrors budget.

See related, recent Grits posts:

1 comment:

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Hey Grits, it’ll be interesting to see what points GFB subscribers’ & visitors’ alike choose to voice their opinions about regarding the many options available in the Post.

The very first thing I thought of was – *Why are the taxpayers’ & voters’ allowing the Department of Public Safety (and Police Departments & Sheriff Departments’) to - run crime labs in the first place? I ask all of the 49ers, inviting them to reply here with alternatives vs the same ol same ol BS. Thanks.