Sunday, February 19, 2017

Forensic backlog at DPS due to free lunches for Lubbock, other freeloader PDs

There's no such thing as a free lunch, unless you're a police department in Texas looking for no-cost crime lab services. Then you can call DPS and by law they must provide services for free. The predictable result is a massive backlog. From the new Government Effectiveness and Efficiency Report prepared biennially by the Legislative Budget Board - the one the Lt. Governor didn't want released:
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.
Some of this work turns out to be unnecessary:
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.
Finally, this writer was unaware of the extent to which DPS crime lab expenditures subsidize Lubbock PD and a few other high-use jurisdictions:
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.


Anonymous said...

How does the legislature budget this expense? By way of taxes and user fees paid to the state by city and county residents?

dfisher said...

Lubbock CO pays their medical examiner $505,972.48 a year, almost $200,000 more than Harris CO pays their medical examiner, and the Lubbock ME isn't even legal. Pretty clear Lubbock has to rely on freebies to plug the hole in the budget.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how many other counties in Texas do the same thing? Is it possible to get a count? I'm thinking Tom Green might also use the Lubbock DPS. As a tax payer I don't like paying for the counties lack of efficiency and the ordering of tests that are not necessary.

Anonymous said...

Most Trace Evidence analysis results are not worth having anyway.

Anonymous said...

Can doctors send in a swab for free to a state lab? If the police can use a state service such as that I wonder if a state lab for doctors is avalible? Collecting information is big business.

Anonymous said...

Tom Green County... A fine cesspool if there ever was one. This is truly the land where the ignorant can reign over anyone not part of the ignorant culture.

Anonymous said...

There are 13 DPS labs that serve Texas' 254 counties. Each lab has a service area that includes about 20 counties for basic lab services. The DPS Houston lab serves a 23 county area. Part of that area is Montgomery Co, which once had a lab of its own. Submitting agencies, however, preferred submitting to DPS at no cost to themselves, so that lab never had a chance as a fee-for-service facility. Harris county is also in that service area. Pasadena recently closed their lab. The agencies using that lab then had to find another option which included the Harris County Institute of Forensic Science (HCIFS - formerly the Medical Examiner's office), the Houston Forensic Science Center (HFSC - formerly the HPD Lab), and the DPS Houston lab. HCIFS should be providing lab services for all law enforcement in Harris county, but they told these now labless agencies that they didn't want the backlog and therefore were not welcome to submit cases there (it was more complicated than that - needed simplification for brevity). HFSC would take their cases but for a fee since their primary purpose is to act as the lab for HPD. This left DPS to receive the cases because they could not say no. Ironically, DPS is to provide services for agencies that did not otherwise have access to a lab, but these agencies had access to two labs. Ultimately the confusion was cleared and the agencies began to submit their cases to HCIFS after creating a sizable backlog at DPS. Independent labs (NMS) are now serving as backlog reduction labs for a fee. Makes sense? Agencies submit to DPS for free, and DPS has to pay another lab to cover the backlog.