500% increase in DWI blood tests worsened DPS crime-lab staffing shortage

While Gov. Perry and some legislative leaders hope to restrict spending increases next session to the combined rate of inflation and population growth, criminal justice spending continues to be an area where spending trends far outpace those levels. Besides prison spending, which increased far beyond that rate over the years, a notable example are the state’s overwhelmed crime labs. An Austin Statesman story on that topic week (“DPS labs face backlog in DWI blood tests,” Dec. 6) opened:

In recent years, as police across Texas have increasingly turned to blood tests to build their drunken driving cases, the state crime labs charged with analyzing the samples have stayed the same size.

The result, according to a joint review by the American-Statesman and KVUE News: The labs have become overwhelmed and backlogged, delaying prosecution and forcing defendants to wait months for their cases to be heard.

According to state estimates, the number of blood samples submitted to Texas Department of Safety labs has increased 500 percent in six years.

But the DPS has added no new lab analyst positions in two years, causing the wait time for results to double in the past year.

The story also provides a bit of detail about interim measures to alleviate the problem and additional staffing DPS has proposed to the Lege:

DPS spokesman Tom Vinger didn’t provide statewide numbers showing the increase in blood-alcohol test requests. But at the regional DPS crime lab in Austin, lab workers last year tested 2,600 blood samples — about 40 percent more than the 1,860 samples they tested in 2010.

The amount of time for DPS analysts to work the cases went from about 30 days during the past three years to a current average of 60 days. …

Also, in an effort to decrease the wait time on blood results, DPS officials said in interviews with the American-Statesman and KVUE that officials have increased the number of analysts conducting blood tests by 20 percent — but only by temporarily moving about 15 employees from other jobs in the labs.

Vinger said the positions were assigned to other lab areas that didn’t have the same volume of samples, allowing the agency to redistribute staff without creating additional backlogs.

Nevertheless, in January, DPS officials said they will ask legislators to add 11 new full-time analysts to their budget. Officials said they don’t yet know how much the additional personnel would cost.

Vinger said the agency last added nine positions to analyze blood specimens in 2009, but it didn’t seek new positions during the 2011 legislative session amid state budget constraints.

One reason for the expansion in DWI blood tests has been a marked decline in DWI conviction rates in recent years, a trend which judges and prosecutors have attributed mainly to the the Driver Responsibility surcharge (which makes defendants more likely to fight DWI cases and judges and prosecutors more likely to acquiesce in reduced charges in the interests of justice). Rather than work to repeal the surcharge, however, police and prosecutors sought to strengthen cases with better evidence (theoretically, anyway), even though that’s not the underlying cause of the trend. So as usual, the only remaining solution, at least as far as the criminal justice establishment is concerned, is to increase government spending.

There are areas like DNA testing where advances in technology have spawned increased demand at crime labs and generated backlogs, but the increase in DWI blood samples is due to volitional decisions by local law enforcement. Grits continues to believe the problem would resolve itself if DPS shifted to a fee for service system, letting localities pay when local decisions boost demand for crime lab services.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.