WHEN IT comes to determining budget priorities for law enforcement, DNA scientists and drug analysis technology are no match for patrol cars and police on the beat. That helps explain why the resources available for crime labs have not kept pace with the demands of police departments and prosecutors. Long backlogs for analysis of DNA, fingerprints, fibers, drugs and other types of forensic evidence are the rule at publicly funded crime labs around the country. Imagine your doctor ordering a blood test and saying you'll have the results in six months to a year -- that's the sort of time frame that police and prosecutors in some places face routinely.
The backlogs have contributed to occasional miscarriages of justice, including probably guilty suspects who walk free and others, wrongly charged, who languish in jail for want of timely forensic analysis. Such cases grab the headlines, leaving little room on the public's agenda for more prosaic problems such as crime labs so overburdened with work and short on staff that they accept only evidence in homicide and rape cases while refusing work related to lesser crimes.
One obvious problem is inadequate state and federal spending. The $100 million-plus appropriated annually by Congress in recent years to expand the DNA testing capacity at crime labs has helped, but not enough to prevent huge backups in many places. As for other, less glamorous types of forensic testing, which represent 90 percent or more of the work performed by most labs, they have received a relative pittance from Washington. With a few exceptions, state and local governments have not taken up the slack. The lack of funding has contributed to severe shortages of qualified staff.
But the problems plaguing crime labs are broader and deeper than a shortage of cash or what's popularly known as "the CSI effect" -- the wildly inflated expectations of jurors who expect real-life investigations to be as crisply resolved and as subject to scientific certainty as the television variety. A congressionally mandated committee, convened under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences, is examining the range of challenges facing practitioners of forensic science, including inadequate training and education of technicians; flawed testing techniques; insufficiently rigorous standards of evidence analysis; spotty proficiency testing; and erratic accreditation regimens. The committee, chaired by Harry T. Edwards, former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and Constantine Gatsonis, director of Brown University's Center for Statistical Sciences, started work this year and is expected to issue its report next summer. It could perform a real service, both by highlighting what has become a dire problem at all levels of law enforcement and by recommending some badly needed standards for a fast-growing field of science.