According to the Department of Public Safety, from calendar years 2010 to 2015, the crime lab’s forensic evidence backlog increased from approximately 22,000 to more than 33,000 submissions. Among respondents to a 2016 survey conducted by the Texas Center for the Judiciary, 96.2 percent indicated that the wait for lab results had led to court delays.
The Department of Public Safety’s crime labs do not have standard procedures to ensure all forensic testing is necessary at the time testing occurs. There is also not a policy that allows the lab to halt testing determined to be unnecessary. As a result, unnecessary testing may occur, reducing resources that could be used to address backlogs. Implementing a process to systematically check the need for testing in certain circumstances could reduce crime lab workloads and enable them to operate more efficiently.Further, "The Department of Public Safety crime labs complete all testing that has been started and do not have a policy to halt testing for certain situations, such as the requesting agency notifying the lab that testing is no longer necessary."
The caseload for drug evidence is significant, with waiting times, even nearly as long as for DNA. "DPS crime labs conducted 44,965 drug evidence tests in fiscal year 2015 with an average turnaround time of 123 days." The longest waiting time was for trace-evidence analysis, which on average takes nearly a year.
As regular Grits readers may recall, crime lab delays are a significant cause of delay in processing drug cases, causing defendants in some cases to languish in jail until results come back:
Furthermore, the nonprofit Texas Center for the Judiciary conducted a survey in January 2016 regarding sources of evidence delays that was sent to all active district and county court at law trial judges. The survey asked the respondents to identify sources of delay. Of the 130 individuals who responded to this question, 125 respondents identified crime lab results as a source of delay. Delays can result in issues including increased jail costs, attorney fees, and impediments for expert witnesses. DPS indicated delayed forensic testing results can affect plea agreements. For instance, local jurisdictions may not offer plea agreements in drug cases until lab results are received.
In 2015, the DPS crime lab in Midland reduced its drug backlog 66.0 percent. The lab achieved this reduction by closing 1,641 cases without analysis as a result of communicating with district attorneys to determine whether testing was still required. DPS also reduced the drug backlog by 20.0 percent by working with local stakeholders who used the five labs with the majority of the statewide backlog to ensure forensic testing of the cases were still needed for prosecution.
In calendar years 2013 and 2014, DPS received an average of 87,642 testing requests each year from 2,310 law enforcement agencies. Approximately 22,000 of all testing requests in these years were from 25 users of the DPS crime lab, and the Lubbock Police Department (LPD) requested more testing from the DPS lab than any other agency. DPS reports that the criminal justice system requires a quicker response for many cases than the DPS crime lab can provide. LPD reports that it has had concerns with the timeliness of DNA and trace evidence testing for forensic evidence submission to the DPS crime lab. LPD reports an average wait time of two to three months for trace evidence and three to six months for DNA analysis.DPS' main problem is that it is not allowed to charge users a fee so departments who want to freeload off the state send their cases there instead of to a private lab or hiring their own experts. If the state created a reasonable fee structure charging market rates for testing, it would solve the problem entirely. It's one thing for the DPS to run crime labs for its own enforcement purposes and to let locals process cases there. But there's no good reason for the state to give everyone a freebie.
RELATED: DPS reaching limits to unsustainable crime lab model: Tells agencies to reduce DNA, drug testing requests.