As Rape Victims Wait, Money for DNA Testing Goes Unused
This story was published in the Los Angeles Times on Nov. 9, 2008
Last summer, the Los Angeles Police Department was dealt a rude shock.
Expecting nearly $1 million in federal grant money to help cover the cost of analyzing DNA evidence in rape cases and other violent crimes, the department was awarded only half as much.
U.S. Department of Justice officials, who distribute the money to police agencies nationwide, told LAPD staff that the fault was their own. LAPD had been too slow to spend about half the DNA grant money awarded in prior years, so its 2008 allotment was reduced.
The reduction could not have come at a worse time for LAPD. A city audit found that more than 7,000 rape kits are waiting to be analyzed there, the largest known backlog in the country (PDF).
As dire as LAPD’s problem is, it is hardly unique.
This year, the Justice Department cut backlog funding to crime labs in 17 states, including California, because they had not spent federal grants dating as far back as 2004. About a quarter of the 105 law enforcement agencies that receive these grants were docked funding, Justice Department officials said.
The cuts come as the national backlog soars. Although the federal government hasn’t estimated the DNA backlog in recent years, Human Rights Watch, which advocates for rape victims, has put it at about 400,000 cases, a figure that is widely cited.
And smaller jurisdictions are not immune. In Erie County, N.Y., the year-to-year backlog increased from 620 to 920 in 2007. In Ventura County, Calif. the backlog increased from 53 cases to 156 during the same period (PDF).
"Potentially hundreds if not thousands of rapists nationally could be apprehended if the frozen evidence of their crime was analyzed," said Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss, who has complained about the backlog for years. "It is the ultimate no-brainer."
An examination by ProPublica and The Los Angeles Times found that responsibility for the backlog crisis does not rest only with crime labs. The breadth of the problem, along with publicity over LAPD’s predicament, has led some to question how well the Justice Department supervises its backlog reduction program. The agency has largely outsourced oversight of the program to a nonprofit company in Florida. And at least $55 million of the department’s DNA money is unaccounted for, government records show.
U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) wrote a letter last week to Attorney General Michael Mukasey expressing her "strong concerns" about how the money is being spent. Maloney, who sponsored legislation that secured the funding, asked Mukasey for a detailed accounting.
"It would be outrageous if the backlogs are the result of the Department of Justice’s negligent administration," Maloney said in a statement to the Times and ProPublica.
After several years, little progress
It has been nearly a decade since Congress ordered the Justice Department to help crime labs reduce their backlogs. Since 2004, Congress has given the department $474 million for this purpose through the Debbie Smith Act, named after a woman who advocates for eliminating backlogs. Smith was raped in 1989, but her attacker’s DNA went untested for six years.
With the funding, the Bush administration said the backlog would be eliminated in five years, a period that soon will expire.
But at the same time an unprecedented number of DNA samples entered the nation’s crime labs. New laws mandated that DNA be taken from more people, often including those arrested but not charged with a crime. Meanwhile, new technologies made it possible to analyze small or degraded samples.
It remains unclear why LAPD and many other labs have not used all their grant money to test these samples. Several labs contacted by ProPublica had no explanation for why their money hadn’t been spent.
LAPD Asst. Chief Sharon Papa acknowledged that, on paper, the department had nearly $2 million in unspent federal DNA funds as of August. She and her staff said those figures did not account for about $500,000 of DNA work sent to private labs but not yet reflected on balance sheets.
The spending delay largely was due to confusion about the time limits the Justice Department sets for spending the money, Papa and others said. Papa emphasized that the cash flow problem hasn’t slowed the pace of the department’s DNA testing.
Renee Artman, director of the Ventura County Sheriff’s lab, which used nearly all its 2006 federal funding, said many labs would like to use the money to hire more DNA analysts. But the grants cover only a fixed period (usually 12 months), which means labs can only guarantee jobs for that brief time.
"Not too many people are willing to take a risk and accept this position," Artman said.
The Justice Department would not allow anyone to speak on the record about DNA backlogs. Speaking anonymously, a department official said the agency is available to answer questions from labs and holds an annual conference for its grantees.
"We’ve done an enormous amount of work to deal with rape kit problems," the official said. The department is aware of LAPD’s problem and is "going to do what we can to assist them directly."
Beyond LA, money sits unused for years.
In progress reports filed in early 2008, 26 labs said they had not yet fully tapped into 2006 DNA money. A lab in Allegheny County, Pa., hadn’t used its entire 2004 grant.
At the Illinois State Police crime lab, the DNA backlog was eliminated in 2005 but had re-emerged with 938 cases by September 2008 (PDF). Yet the lab has not fully spent its grants from 2006 or 2007.
The lab has not been penalized for the unspent funds, said Master Sgt. Brian Ley, an agency spokesman. "This is an issue we’ve dealt with for years," Ley said. "We recognize that there will always be a backlog of some sort."
Sarah Tofte, who has tracked the backlog program for Human Rights Watch, said the fact that so many labs have been allowed to sit on funding suggests the Justice Department hasn’t adequately supervised the program. The department should be pressing labs to use the money with more urgency, Tofte said.
"The federal government is part of the problem," she said. "There’s no accountability--none."
The Justice Department requires labs to submit two-page quarterly progress reports. But many hand in incomplete reports, with entries such as "nothing to report - no funds spent," as the South Dakota attorney general’s office recorded in January.
In a 2004 audit, the Justice Department’s inspector general found oversight of DNA funding was weak. In response, the department largely outsourced its oversight responsibilities to a nonprofit contractor in Florida, the National Forensic Science Technology Center. Now, each lab is visited every other year by a team that audits how the grant funds are used.
The Justice Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the agency "lacks the staff" to watch the program on its own. In 2007, the department paid the Florida company $6 million for services that included overseeing the DNA program.
Dr. Lisa Forman Neall, a former chief of the Investigative and Forensic Sciences Division at the Justice Department, said oversight responsibilities shouldn’t be outsourced.
"That is the job of the federal agency," said Forman Neall, who left the division before it began administering the Debbie Smith program.
Now the inspector general’s office is again auditing the backlog reduction program, a spokeswoman confirmed.
Justice Department officials declined comment.
Where did the money go?
It is difficult to determine exactly how the Justice Department has spent the $474 million Congress has provided for the DNA program since 2004.
About $55 million is unaccounted for, according to an analysis of government data by ProPublica. Department officials said some of that money was probably used for administrative costs, but they didn’t provide a precise accounting.
They also said some DNA grant money went for research and development in areas unrelated to the backlog, including fingerprint analysis.
Rep. Maloney said she’ll investigate whether it’s possible to ensure that DNA testing monies are spent on reducing the backlogs.
But even labs that spent their grant money have seen backlogs skyrocket.
At the Missouri State Highway Patrol, for instance, the backlog rose from 392 cases to 1,173 by the end of 2007. Its funding was not enough to keep up with the boom in DNA testing, officials said.
In Los Angeles, news of the backlog and revoked funding has forced politicians to confront the problem. Last week, the city council found money to pay private labs for more testing and to hire 16 DNA analysts and support staff — a boost of about 33 percent.
But millions of dollars in additional city funds, federal grants and private donations will be needed to address the problem, and even then city officials say the backlog won’t be eliminated until 2013.