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Sep 02 2013

Many State Crime Labs Funded by Guilty Verdicts

Radley Balko reports on a new paper in the journal Criminal Justice Ethics that says many state and local crime labs get funding only, or primarily, if a defendant is found guilty of the crime they are accused of. This is a staggering conflict of interest. From the text of the paper:

Funding crime labs through court-assessed fees creates another channel for bias to enter crime lab analyses. In jurisdictions with this practice the crime lab receives a sum of money for each conviction of a given type. Ray Wickenheiser says, ‘‘Collection of court costs is the only stable source of funding for the Acadiana Crime Lab. $10 is received for each guilty plea or verdict from each speeding ticket, and $50 from each DWI (Driving While Impaired) and drug offense.’’

In Broward County, Florida, ‘‘Monies deposited in the Trust Fund are principally court costs assessed upon conviction of driving or boating under the influence ($50) or selling, manufacturing, delivery, or possession of a controlled substance ($100).’’

Several state statutory schemes require defendants to pay crime laboratory fees upon conviction. North Carolina General Statutes require, ‘‘[f]or the services of’’ the state or local crime lab, that judges in criminal cases assess a $600 fee to be charged ‘‘upon conviction’’ and remitted to the law enforcement agency containing the lab whenever that lab ‘‘performed DNA analysis of the crime, tests of bodily fluids of the defendant for the presence of alcohol or controlled substances, or analysis of any controlled substance possessed by the defendant or the defendant’s agent.’’

Illinois crime labs receive fees upon convictions for sex offenses, controlled substance offenses, and those involving driving under the influence. Mississippi crime labs require crime laboratory fees for various conviction types, including arson, aiding suicide, and driving while intoxicated.

Similar provisions exist in Alabama, New Mexico, Kentucky, New Jersey, Virginia, and, until recently, Michigan. Other states have broadened the scope even further. Washington statutes require a $100 crime lab fee for any conviction that involves lab analysis. Kansas statutes require offenders ‘‘to pay a separate court cost of $400 for every individual offense if forensic science or laboratory services or forensic computer examination services are provided in connection with the investigation.’’

In addition to those already listed, the following states also require crime lab fees in connection with various conviction types: Arizona, California, Missouri, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.

There’s already a problem with cognitive biases because crime labs are often run by police departments, but making their funding dependent on guilty verdicts is so obviously wrong that, if one didn’t know just how bad our criminal justice system is from top to bottom, it would seem almost unbelievable that it would be allowed to go on. Crime labs should be absolutely independent of police and prosecutors. Their only job is to get the science right, whether that helps a defendant or hurts them.

13 comments

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  1. 1
    caseyboucher

    Personally, were I ever accused of a crime, I’d make a pretty large “donation” to any crime lab that helped to acquit me. Just saying.

  2. 2
    Artor

    When the first example given was Broward County, FL, I was unsurprised. But when Balko listed all the other states that do this, I was amazed and shocked. Seriously? Did nobody ever notice the giant conflict of interest inherent in such a setup? Wow…

  3. 3
    sigurd jorsalfar

    @1 It must be nice to have that kind of wealth, casey. Also, a ‘donation’ of that type is only effective if paid before the lab’s witness testifies. Just saying.

  4. 4
    illdoittomorrow

    “Kansas statutes require offenders ‘‘to pay a separate court cost of $400 for every individual offense if forensic science or laboratory services or forensic computer examination services are provided in connection with the investigation.’’

    Well, that’s handy, isn’t it? The state lab can be paid piecework for coming up with evidence of guilt, and the prosecutor gets to screw over the defendant just a little bit harder. It’s a win-win!

    Excuse me while I go vomit.

  5. 5
    D. C. Sessions

    I have a hard time [1] believing that no defense lawyer has ever brought this up to impeach lab evidence. Which leaves me wondering how that turned out.

    [1] Not that I wouldn’t believe it — in the past I’ve had to point out Arizona statutes to lawyers who were totally unaware of them.

  6. 6
    lamacher

    In the phrase ‘Criminal Justice’, the word ‘criminal’, at least in America, is a descriptive adjective. When the big corporation leaders are lionized as exemplary Americans, and soft drug users are jailed for years, and racially biased sentences are as common as robins, it’ s not difficult for outsiders to recognize the gross injustice of American ‘justice’.

  7. 7
    caseloweraz

    When I read this, the money quote from 1983′s A Nation at Risk ran through my mind. To the best of my recollection, that is: “If a foreign government had imposed this system of education on the U.S., it would be regarded as an act of war.”

  8. 8
    daved

    I don’t know if this is still true, but I seem to recall that some years back, it came out that in China, when a prisoner was executed by a firing squad, his family would be billed for the ammunition. This strikes me as essentially the same thing.

  9. 9
    David C Brayton

    Jesus fucking christ. I had no idea. I’ve grown pretty cynical over the years but this broke my outrage meter.

  10. 10
    CaitieCat, getaway driver

    I wonder if there will be a single week between now and the next beginning of an Arbitrary Rotation Around the Sun, wherein I am not given new reasons never to want to enter the United States again, for any reason?

    Honestly, I’d make a pool on it. My money’s on “0 weeks” in that period having no new information making me not want to enter the US. My sympathies, neighbo(u)rinoes, but…dude.

  11. 11
    had3

    One of my more disappointing cases of testing bias is in Virginia where I requested my client’s DNA be tested independently and at a different time/lab from that of DNA collected at the scene of the crime. I argued, unsuccessfully, that the lab shouldn’t “know” what they were looking for prior to performing the DNA tests. I was denied my request as the court ruled that the labs procedures were subject to cross examination at trial but no prophylactic measures were necessary. – sigh.

  12. 12
    kangxi

    lamacher: to follow up on your incisive comment, don’t forget to include the following:
    - elected judges
    - refusal of official authorities to notify consulates when a foreign national is charged (Tex AttGen: “Texas didn’t sign the Vienna Convention”)
    - treating and charging under-aged offenders as adults – and sentencing them accordingly
    - treating and charging mentally incompetent offenders as mentally competent
    - putting the authority of the State behind junk science (hair analysis, fire spread patterns, psychiatrists with a 100% record of testifying that the accused WILL reoffend))
    - the lack of any balance in the attitude of public prosecutors, who will not cooperate in eg DNA testing death row inmates (and don’t forget that oaf Ken Cuccinelli)
    - the sheer, spiteful vindictiveness of, it seems at times, every single person in every single tier of the “justice” system (qv the Angola Three) without any apparent independent oversight & correction
    - plea bargaining resulting in the most culpable offender escaping the most severe sentence at the expense of the hangers on in the criminal enterprise
    - not informing convicted people when mistakes have been made & found (http://www.theagitator.com/2012/04/17/convicted-defendants-left-uninformed-of-forensic-flaws-found-by-justice-dept/).
    I’m just a (British) outsider – I’m sure that those more intimately acquainted with your law courts and prisons could add considerably more.

  13. 13
    democommie

    Look, the USA!USA!!USA!!! has its problems, sure. However, so does EVERYBODY else. You don’t see people getting all upset about them guys in Africa killin’ teh GAY (well, maybe you do, but who cares what THOSE people think?) or perps bein’ tortured in foreign prisons (after having been delivered by ERA*). So, what’s the big deal. When push comes to shove, the USA!US!!USA!!! will go to the mattress to protect its citizens’ right to own teh gunz and, um, prolly some other essential freedumbs. Otherwise, how could we continue to be a shining beacon of justiceness, freedomforsome and equality before the law (s’longs you got the Benjamins).

    Besides, if those people weren’t GUILTY, they wouldn’t be getting charged with nothing.

    * Extraordinary Rendition Airways

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