Friday, January 13, 2012

Crime lab loses federal funding

The honeymoon for Sam Houston State's Regional Crime Lab in The Woodlands is now over.

The lab was opened with the help of a federal grant and the understanding that the lab would become self-sufficient after three years. Owing to the iron law of budgeting (he who holds the iron makes the budget), that three year window ended about two years early.

The lab had charged Montgomery County, its largest customer, $200 for every drug or alcohol test in DWI cases. Without the funding from the feds, MoCo will pay $386 for alcohol tests and $290 for drug tests. Due to the increasing costs of operating the lab, all controlled substance evidence tests will be handled by the DPS. The switch will increase the wait time for test results.

But how to pay for the increased cost of testing is the question. The original idea was that MoCo would pay for the tests through sentencing fees for those who plead guilty or are convicted at trial. But that only covered about 3% of the cost. MoCo District Attorney Bret Ligon now wants to use the asset forfeiture fund to pay for the tests.

The problem, of course, is the increased incentive to seize property and file forfeiture actions against defendants. Forfeiture actions serve to tie up defendant's assets and make it that much harder to muster a defense against the state. You will also find out that the vast majority of defendants either default or negotiate settlements in which they receive just a portion of the value of the items seized. The asset forfeiture funds then become a private slush fund for whoever's running the DA's Office (just ask former MoCo DA Michael McDougal). Of course there's no telling where the property seized in Tenaha went.

In the meantime, however, defendants in MoCo will have to wait longer for lab results to come back in drug cases as it can take up to nine months for the DPS lab to release test results. In the meantime that's nine months of missing work to take yourself to court (if you're on bond) or (if you can't make bond) the prospect of sitting in a cell for nine months waiting to fight a case.

Some of the lessons from MoCo's crime lab are obvious. First, for entities involved in the criminal (in)justice system who rely upon government funds to operate - those funds will diminish or vanish at some point, even if the entity  is there to help the state. Second, the lab should have charged a more realistic rate for their services; the excess would allow for a "cushion" when the funding was cut or dropped. Third, no one gives a rat's ass about the people accused of committing a crime.

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