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DNA Tracker: Crime Labs and Their DNA Backlog

DNA Tracker: Crime Labs and Their DNA Backlog

by Ben Protess, ProPublica - June 8, 2009

Return to "Introducing ProPublica’s DNA Backlog Tracker: Five Labs, Five Backlogs."

Lab Current Backlog Goal for Eliminating Backlog What the Lab Is Doing to Eliminate the Backlog Why We Chose This Lab
FBI As of March 31, 293,000 samples from people convicted or arrested for a crime, plus 2,000 from crime scenes. A lab spokeswoman didn't provide an updated count of the backlog. A spokeswoman said the lab is trying to eliminate the backlog, but currently "cannot provide a projected date" for accomplishing that. The lab is using new robotic systems that will eventually allow it to process 120,000 samples every month, a spokeswoman said. The FBI lab's backlog has grown as federal DNA collection laws expanded in recent years. Since a new law went into effect earlier this year, the lab has been receiving samples from anyone arrested for a federal crime. The new law also ordered federal agents to take DNA samples from people they detain, typically immigrants suspected of being in the United States unlawfully.
Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) As of May 27, 5,008 rape kits, including kits from closed cases and kits that were taken in investigations that turned out to be noncriminal. 4 years LAPD began chipping away at its backlog in January after hiring more lab technicians and outsourcing scores of rape kits to private labs for testing. LAPD has one of the largest backlogs in the country. See here for our coverage of LAPD's backlog troubles.
California Department of Justice 53,590 DNA samples from convicted offenders and arrestees The lab wants to make a significant dent in the backlog, but hasn't set a target date for doing so, a lab official said. The lab has been hiring more scientists and might eventually outsource samples to private labs, a lab official said. The California DOJ's lab has one of the largest DNA backlogs of any state lab. Its backlog has boomed since Prop. 69, which mandates DNA collection from arrestees, went into effect in January.
Illinois State Police 1,227 DNA cases A spokesman said the lab doesn't expect the backlog to ever fully disappear, because "a zero backlog is difficult to achieve and predict." The lab does expect the DNA backlog to "decrease significantly,” he said. The lab is using several methods to cut into the backlog, including hiring more scientists and using robots to speed the testing process. The lab estimates that a scientist using a robot can analyze more cases in about one week than a scientist working manually can analyze in a couple months. In May, the Illinois legislature narrowly defeated a bill that would have mandated DNA collection from arrestees. That bill could be reintroduced soon. Meanwhile, a state audit found that the lab reported bogus DNA backlog numbers for several years, leading former Gov. Rod Blagojevich to wrongly declare in 2005 that the backlog was eliminated.
Virginia Department of Forensic Science 1,038 DNA cases. This number includes several dozen cases in a Virginia post-conviction DNA testing project that involves decades-old evidence. The program’s goal, a lab spokesman said, is to identify people who may have been wrongfully convicted. The lab doesn't have a target date for eliminating the backlog. A spokesman said the lab is working "consistently to minimize the number of cases affected so we can best serve the citizens of the Commonwealth."   Virginia's government was among the first to require DNA samples from arrestees. Advocates for expanded DNA testing point to the Virginia lab as a model -- a lab that can handle samples from wide swaths of the population.

Compiled by Ben Protess/ProPublica