Sunday, February 03, 2013

Austin PD crime-lab backlogs delaying cases for months

The Austin Statesman has a remarkable story ("Crime lab backlogs weighing down court system," Feb. 3) lamenting growing backlogs at the Austin PD crime lab, which are "causing unprecedented delays in the resolution of criminal cases, preventing some from going forward for at least six months and stressing an already bustling county judicial system." Reported Tony Plohetski:
The number of cases awaiting testing has doubled in five years, and more than 1,100 samples in both felony and misdemeanor cases remain unanalyzed – a backlog that every judge in the county’s criminal courts deems unacceptable.

Some cases involve relatively minor crimes from mid-2012 that now languish on court dockets. The problem is particularly acute for blood evidence in drunken driving cases, which is sitting on shelves an average of 200 days before it is assigned to an analyst, more than six times longer than three years ago.

The backlog is partly the result of repeated decisions by the city of Austin not to add new scientists to the crime lab in its nine years of operation, despite requests from the police department and a growing reliance on forensic evidence to solve and prosecute crimes.
Ironically, Hays County recently announced it would begin to use Austin's crime lab on a contract basis because of backlogs at DPS!

Austin's failure to invest in its crime lab stems from the same illogic as their failure to invest in crime-scene investigators (the city fails to investigate 55-65% of home burglaries because they don't employ enough property-crime techs). Nearly every extra dollar available to the agency over the last decade has gone to hiring ever-more patrol officers and paying for extravagant raises agreed to in off-budget negotiations with the police union, which is the main source of recent city property tax increases.

That said, this is also in part a self-inflicted wound: The biggest source of crime-lab backlogs turns out to be  police department management decisions to ramp up their "no refusal" DWI blood-draw policies.
Since 2008, the number of samples submitted to the lab has risen modestly overall — about 25 percent. But the request for certain types of testing, including blood in drunken driving cases, has gone from 440 in 2008 to 2,002 last year as the department has increasingly sought blood samples from suspects who refuse a breath test.

Those cases are handled in the lab’s chemistry section, which also analyzes narcotic samples, but blood cases “are the most complicated, and the processing time is much longer,” said Ed Harris, the department’s chief of field support services, who oversees the lab. ...

The longest wait time is the average of 200 days for blood samples, which have flooded into the lab in recent years, according to department statistics. The wait time for narcotic and DNA samples is 75 days, while fingerprint wait times are about 90 days.
Luckily, Travis County is pretty good about issuing personal bonds in such situations; elsewhere those sorts of backlogs could leave a county jail bursting at the seams. Still, the story shows how, in the 21st century, state and local officials must invest in forensic labs as diligently as they do front-line police officers, the judiciary, and county jails, and a nascent storyline every budget season - at the state and local levels - will be the growing competition between these various law enforcement functions for increasingly scarce resources.

See prior, related Grits posts:

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