City of Austin, Travis County partner to clear drug lab backlog

On April 16, Travis County Commissioners Court approved $51,500 to help clear a backlog in the Austin Police Department drug lab.

County documents state that the lab has a backlog of 231 submissions for felony drug cases, and 1,021 felony and misdemeanor blood tests.

"This backlog is causing a significant delay in court dispositions of existing cases," Judge Samuel Biscoe wrote in an April 9 letter to Austin City Manager Marc Ott.

Based on existing contracts with private vendors, clearing the backlog would cost $102,193. Biscoe proposed hiring private vendors to clear the backlog and splitting the cost with the city. Each entity would pay $51,500.

Earlier this year, Austin City Council approved adding three positions to the drug lab staff, said Roger Jefferies, Justice and Public Safety Department county executive.

However, it will take up to several months for personnel to be hired, trained and ready to assist with the workload, Biscoe wrote.

"In my view, once the current backlog is addressed, the additional three positions added to the drug lab by the city should help manage the work load going forward," he said.

Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo told the court that the number of tests that the drug lab handles has gone up, and the complexity of the tests has increased, particularly with synthetically altered so-called "designer drugs."

"The time it takes to actually test the narcotics is longer than it has been in the past because the drug dealers tweak the actual chemistry that's involved in the drug, which results in false positives and additional problems," he said.

Acevedo said advances in forensic technology mean that investigators can extract more DNA from crime scenes, resulting in more testing.