Crime Labs Struggle With DNA Test Demands

By: - March 8, 2012 12:00 am

Twelve years ago, Congress passed a bill aimed at bolstering the capacity of state and local crime labs. It was known as the “DNA Backlog Elimination Act.” The ensuing effort now bears the more modest title of “DNA Backlog Reduction Program.” But even with the new name, it is an ambitious venture. Since 2006, Congress has poured $785 million into helping to fix the logjam in DNA evidence collection at the state and local level through this and other programs.

There’s no question that a serious problem exists. Recent advances in science and technology have made DNA a more useful tool for convicting the guilty and exonerating the innocent, but major backlogs persist, despite broad acknowledgement that delays in processing DNA evidence are keeping criminals on the streets. “A lot of it is supply and demand,” says Kermit Channel, director of the Arkansas state crime lab. “Because the technology offers so much more today than even five or six years ago, law enforcement is asking for more and more from us.”

Federal help is making a difference. Between 2004 and 2010, the Backlog Reduction Program, run by the National Institute of Justice, has funded completion of 172,761 cases and significantly increased state and local DNA laboratory capacity. Channel credits federal funding with dramatically reducing the Arkansas backlog — which peaked at 18,000 in 2005 — to 4,200 now.

“Without those funding sources, we wouldn’t be anywhere near where we are today,” Channel says. Federal grants have allowed the state to invest in more sophisticated equipment that sorts through evidence faster, as well as nine additional staff members to process the evidence.

Still, while the crime lab is now able to stay up to date with homicides and sexual assaults, property crimes remain a major driver of the state’s persistent backlog. Processing evidence of property crimes is critical, Channel says, not just for solving those offenses, but also for investigating others that may have been committed by the same person.

More data

This is because in addition to analyzing DNA evidence recovered from crime scenes, crime labs are tasked with maintaining databases that hold DNA profiles of certain convicted offenders. State and local DNA databases and the national DNA database, connected through the FBI-run system CODIS, have become important tools for solving crimes in cases for which there are no suspects. As of January 2012, CODIS had led to 171,800 “hits” or matches and assisted in more than 165,100 investigations, according to the FBI.

As the utility of DNA databases in solving crimes has become apparent, state policies have expanded to require that more and more DNA be collected and processed for inclusion in those databases. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is pushing a bill that would require DNA from any person convicted of any crime to be included in a database, and about half of the states now include DNA from arrestees who have not been convicted of crimes.

While inclusion of additional offenders and arrestees has made CODIS a more useful tool, it has also clogged crime labs and raised major concerns about privacy for individuals who have not been convicted, says Sara Katsanis, a researcher at Duke University’s Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy. “The presumption is that if we had the whole population in there then it would work best,” she says.

When states expand requirements to include more offenders and arrestees, Katsanis adds, they often fail to consider the impact on their existing crime lab capacity. “There’s not a lobbyist for the rape victims who aren’t getting their samples processed,” she says.

The federal connection

Crime labs have become highly reliant on federal funding. A recent report by the Congressional Research Service notes that 83 percent of state and local crime labs say they would see an increase in DNA casework backlogs if federal funding were to disappear.

But the federal rules lead to a bit of a conundrum: While the core backlog reduction program is formula-based and available to states that do not have backlogs, other funds give priority to states that have documented large backlogs. That gives them less incentive to get the problem fixed. “It makes you more competitive if you have an existing backlog,” admits Sheila Jerusalem, a spokesperson for the National Institute of Justice.

Some state officials concede that the promise of federal support can provide a perverse incentive. “It’s kind of just an accepted problem now,” says Adam Horst, director of the Indiana Office of Management and Budget. “The fact that we have federal funding streams that encourage you to have [a backlog] may be part of the reason why states have them.”

Horst experienced this as he pushed the Indiana state crime lab to eliminate its backlog, which it finally did in 2009. It now maintains an average turnaround time of 30 days for processing DNA samples, well within federal guidelines. “I literally would have conversations with people about eliminating the backlog where they’d say, ‘You know we’re losing federal money,'” Horst recalls, “and I’d say, ‘Well you know what, maybe that’s OK.’ Maybe the federal government needs to change their policy.”

New technology

Still, funding from the National Institute of Justice has helped state and local labs bolster their capacity so that they can sustain higher workloads on their own. Investments in technology and robotics and improvements to workflow processes have enabled some states to process higher volumes of DNA more quickly in ways that aren’t reliant on ongoing federal support.

After seeing a 48 percent jump in DNA requests over the course of one year, the Louisiana State Police Crime Laboratory used federal grants to implement more advanced technologies and hire management experts to evaluate and overhaul workflow processes.

The result was a significant improvement in lab productivity, from 32 completed DNA requests per month in 2007 to 175 per month in 2011. Average turnaround time went from 287 days to 59 days. Process improvements included everything from eliminating unnecessary procedural steps to removing doors to make it easier for staff to move around. Spaghetti charts mapping the travel time around the lab showed that staff had to walk a total of 2.4 miles just to process evidence from a typical sexual assault case. About a mile was eliminated from that.

Another way that states have tried to minimize backlogs is to work more closely on the front end with law enforcement officials — the ones submitting the evidence — to ensure that the right evidence is being tested. “Our contributors sometime watch too much CSI and they don’t realize it takes so much time to conduct these tests,” says David Coffman, chief of forensic services for Florida’s state crime lab.

Florida and many other states have raised acceptance thresholds so that, for property cases especially, they aren’t testing DNA from doorknobs or other places where samples from multiple people are likely to be found. Still, says Coffman, “t here’s a way to ask us to bend the rules depending on the nature of the case.” When there is lots of evidence — a trail of blood, for example — Florida now works with law enforcement to pick the five best samples first, and then will go back and test more as necessary.

State crime labs don’t typically charge local law enforcement agencies for their services, but Arizona experimented with this approach as a way to reduce costs and provide an incentive to law enforcement not to submit unnecessary evidence. The legislature passed a law in 2007 requiring it but reversed course in 2009 because of pushback from local jurisdictions. 

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Melissa Maynard

Melissa Maynard oversees the Pew state fiscal health project’s Fiscal 50 online resource, which helps policymakers understand fiscal, economic, and demographic trends affecting their states by tracking tax revenue, reserves, employment rates, Medicaid spending, and other issues important to long-term fiscal health.