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Introducing ProPublica's DNA Backlog Tracker: Five Labs, Five Backlogs

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, center, speaks as Kellie Greene, director of Speaking Out About Rape, Inc., left, and John Walsh, host of America's Most Wanted, listen at the Justice Department on March 11, 2003. Ashcroft discussed President Bush's plans to eliminate the DNA backlog. (Stefan Zaklin/Getty Images)

"One of the biggest problems facing the criminal justice system today is the substantial backlog of unanalyzed DNA samples."

--A 2003 Bush administration statement about the "President's DNA initiative," a five-year plan to, among other goals, eliminate backlogs of untested evidence.

In 2003, the Bush administration declared war on the DNA backlog.

Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that the U.S. Justice Department planned to spend about a billion dollars to eliminate it. The effort, the Justice Department said, would help crime labs swiftly identify murderers, rapists and other dangerous criminals so they couldn't strike again.

The administration promised that the backlog would be gone in five years, a period that will expire this year.

But today, at least 350,000 samples from murder and rape cases -- many of them involving sexually abused children -- remain untested in crime labs nationwide, according to the federal government's best estimates. Other reports claim the backlog is even bigger, with as many as 700,000 samples. In 2005, backlogs across the country nearly doubled.

There’s no one cause of the uptick. But in previousinvestigations, ProPublica has detailed how much of the surge can be traced to new federal and state laws requiring DNA samples from people convicted of -- or simply arrested for -- nonviolent crimes, including shoplifting. (Check out our map that breaks down DNA collection laws in various states.) Because of these laws, underfunded and understaffed crime labs are now flooded with DNA samples.

Beginning this month, ProPublica will follow five of the labs to see just how well they’re keeping up. The current backlog numbers at the five are recorded below (and in this chart). Every month, we will update you on each lab's progress -- or lack thereof.

Crime Lab Current Backlog
FBI 293,000 DNA samples
Los Angeles Police Department 5,008 rape kits
California Department of Justice 53,590 DNA samples
Illinois State Police 1,227 DNA cases
Virginia Department of Forensic Science 1,038 DNA cases

See the full chart for more information on the labs' DNA backlogs.

The five we chose -- the FBI, the Los Angeles Police Department, California Department of Justice, Virginia Department of Forensic Science and Illinois State Police -- represent a mixture of state, local and federal labs. Several were examined in our previous backlog stories. Some have unusually large backlogs or are located in states that recently expanded their DNA collection laws. (See here for our method in choosing each lab).

We'll keep tracking these labs until their backlogs are cleared, as the federal government promised would happen. We expect to be at this a while.

In the meantime, if you want to suggest a lab for our list, shoot us an e-mail and let us know.

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