Thursday, March 01, 2007

Van Hollen May Get What He Asks For

The state crime lab has been a major issue since the AG race last year. At the heart of the issue is what's been called "the CSI effect," which is the desire of juries to see hard scientific evidence in order to convict a defendant, just as it happens on our television sets.

Reports are that requests to the crime lab are up 85 percent since 2003, which, perhaps not so coincidentally, is about the same time CSI hit #1 in the ratings.

J.B. Van Hollen has already come under some heat regarding the crime lab backlog when his tune changed quickly after taking the AG office in January.

During the election, Van Hollen confidently told voters he could find funds within the existing DOJ budget to handle the backlog. Once he actually became AG, Van Hollen altered his statement to say that it would take 20 months to clear up the backlog with existing resources at the DOJ -- and that's if no other requests are made during that time.

In early February, Governor Doyle announced that his budget would include the addition of 15 positions for the crime lab, following through on a campaign pledge he made. Van Hollen quickly said that, although the 15 positions would help, they weren't enough.

A couple of weeks later, Van Hollen announced that 31 new positions would be required -- twice what the governor proposed -- and that if he got them, he could have the crime lab backlog eliminated by 2010.

Just yesterday, the Joint Finance Committee said ok -- if 31 new hires is what he needs, then 31 new hires is what he'll get.

Good news, yes, but if it's approved by the full legislature and the governor, that means Van Hollen is effectively on the clock to have the backlog eliminated by 2010, which also just so happens to be his reelection year. A double-edged sword, indeed.

After all, it's not just that a backlog exists, it's that it's increasing each and every year as more requests poor in. Van Hollen is saying that the staffing he has at the start of FY 2007-2008 will be enough to eliminate the existing backlog and prevent another one from developing between now and the start of FY 2010-2011.

That's quite a promise. And, as Peg Lautenschlager demonstrated last September, one term in office is hardly enough time to coast into reelection, even within your own party's nomination. To be sure, in the midst of the election season last July, almost half of the state still didn't even know enough about Lautenschlager to have an opinion about her, in spite of the fact that she was the state's AG for the past three and a half years.

The big wild card for Van Hollen is his plan to put the reins (see comment) on the number of requests prosecutors make for evidence analysis from the crime lab. Of course, the requests aren't simply a result of prosecutors willy-nilly sending samples off to Madison; they're being driven by jury expectations that scientific evidence exists for a conviction.

The real trick is going to be limiting requests without compromising the outcome of state cases, and it seems likely that defense attorneys are going to learn to become keenly aware of how to play the cases that don't make the cut for crime lab analysis.

It sounds like a lot of risky business for a first term AG. Perhaps a better line would've been to say that with the 31 new positions, the backlog would be trimmed down to a manageable to nonexistent level that also ensures all cases that require scientific analysis of evidence will get it.

That line wouldn't come without political heat emanating from the promises made during the campaign, but that heat would mostly come now, four years before his re-election, rather than in the midst of the re-election race four years from now, which is when the promise to fully eliminate the backlog will need to be realized.

Besides, the campaign promise to end the backlog through existing DOJ resources has already been broken. Why create a new one to deal with during the next campaign? Now seems to be the time to start laying up rather than continuing to go straight for the pin.

But, now that the promise has been made publicly, we'll need to wait until 2010 to see how it pans out for the new AG; assuming, that is, Van Hollen actually gets what he asks for.

UPDATE: Here is Van Hollen's response to the JFC approval of the 31 new positions. He curiously refers to the elimination of the backlog by 2010 as a "goal" -- and he does so twice. Not a promise or pledge, but a goal.

Here's the line from the AP story on Van Hollen's request to legislators for the 31 new positions exactly two weeks ago (emphasis mine):
But Van Hollen, a Republican, wants authorization in the adjustment bill for 31 new hires, including 29 analysts. If he can get them on board by July 1, he can eliminate the backlog by 2010, he told the Assembly judiciary and criminal justice committees.
Before it was something he can and -- as a corollary -- would do, now it's just something he wants to accomplish.

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Blogger Dad29 said...

I hate to be picky, but "reign in" is NOT correct English.

It's rein in, like you do to a horse.

See? Us Pubbie uber-wealthy types know from horse-riding, even if it's from watching Roy Rogers.

March 01, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

Thanks for the correction. I'll make note of it in the post.

March 01, 2007  
Anonymous Vic said...

Thanks for the overview of the entire issue.

The AG position is going to be interesting to watch over this next term. In the matter of two short weeks he has backed out of the suit with 15 other states over coal fires power plants and he has sorely underestimated the value of PegL and the backlog at the crime lab.

This kind of poor management could lead to the AG race dragging down Republicans in the governors race. It demonstrates how postering over consistent management will be percieved by voters.

I think that we are seeing a similar thing in the Milwaukee County Exec's office.

March 01, 2007  
Anonymous Vic said...

I forgot what got me looking for this article:

Senator Darling's press release essentially gives all of the credit to Van Hollen for fighting crime all of the blame to PegL.

We all have to jump on these kinds of transparent attempts to smear the good working Democrats that are honestly trying to provide the best government with consistent management practices.

Then to praise the legislature for the AG to double what was proposed by Peg and the Dems to approve it in the finance committee without comment or justification is simply rolling over.

When the ratings for the CSI TV shows goes down and the requests for DNA analysis goes down do we sell all the equipment for 10% of its value?

Lets look at what is happening around us and respond appropriately without all these knee jerk decisions that end up being the most expensive.

And for Jiminee's sake let's at least call them on it.

March 01, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

Thanks for your comments, Vic.

GOP Reps. Rhoades, Suder, Vos, Huebsch, and Bies all have press releases out today on the JFC vote, in addition to Van Hollen and Darling. To their credit, Rhoades and Van Hollen both cited the bipartisan nature of the vote, while Vos and Bies explicitly give credit to the GOP and Darling has that shot at Doyle in her release (VH hadn't even come up with the 31 new hire figure when Doyle announced his offer for 15).

All of the releases are in today’s Wheeler Report.

Ultimately, I think increasing the staffing at the crime lab is a good thing. Dems would be wise to openly praise the additions and the bipartisan manner in which they were approved, while simultaneously holding VH accountable now and over the next few years for his pledge -- which he already appears to be hedging on a bit -- to completely eliminate the backlog by 2010 (without, of course, compromising state cases by putting too many limitations on requests). Trying to fight the 31 additions would only spell political trouble.

March 01, 2007  
Anonymous Vic said...

My frustration is that we let these outbursts by these Republicans is that we need to consistently set the record straight rather than letting these distortions go uncorrected.

I think it is hilarious that the Milwaukee County Board is putting out press releases that clearly state the cronology of events and that they are much more responsible for progress than Scott Walker. I think their releases are straight forward and informative and puts a damper on the County Exec's grandstanding in a demure way.

March 01, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

You're right, Vic, that the Dems could and should do more in the realm of press release politics. I hate to say that because I think releasing dozens of coordinated statements in the hope that some media outlet somewhere will pick it up is ridiculous, but if that's how the game needs to be played, that's how it needs to be played (at least in the short term). And there is a way, as you note, to play press release politics in a demure way that maintains a level of dignity.

March 02, 2007  

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