For 15 years, the Justice Department has tried to reduce the backlog of crime scene DNA samples awaiting testing at state and local crime labs. But despite about $1 billion in federal spending to cut the number of untested cases, the number has grown by 85 percent in the past six years, according to a Government Accountability Office report issued Friday.
Experts say the problem is largely a product of the success of DNA testing, which has identified more than 440,000 previously unknown suspects over the past 20 years, and the increased willingness of police agencies to submit cases. But no one is quite seeing the light at the end of the backlog tunnel, and the GAO found that the Justice Department wasn’t setting goals for its backlog reduction because “the goal of eliminating backlogs is unachievable in the foreseeable future because [of] increases in demand for DNA analysis.”
Congress passed the Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Grant Program in 2004 to support public crime laboratories’ work to build capacity and process DNA evidence, and the law provided for funding of up to $150 million per year. Police can submit blood, skin or hair samples from a crime scene or a suspect, or semen from a sexual assault kit, to their crime lab, obtain a DNA profile from the sample and then have it compared against the FBI’s national database of about 17 million people. Jails and prisons also submit samples of convicts or individuals arrested to be profiled and entered into the database, though those have less investigative urgency and pose less of a backlog problem, the GAO found.
The number of samples submitted for DNA testing nationwide went from about 242,000 in 2011 to 308,000 in 2017, according to the GAO’s findings. The number of samples tested also rose, from about 217,000 to about 279,000, and so the backlog rose, from about 91,000 samples awaiting testing in 2011 to about 169,000 untested samples in 2017.
Gretta L. Goodwin, the report’s lead author, said the rising backlog is attributable, in part, to the 91,000 cases that already existed in 2011, and which labs must address, in addition to the steadily rising number of new submissions. “It’s really an issue of them not being able to keep up,” Goodwin said.
“The program is kind of a victim of its own success,” said Scott Berkowitz, the CEO and founder of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, which helped pass the Debbie Smith Act. “Congress has put a lot of money into this, and I think we’ve seen a huge return on that, in terms of cases and CODIS [the combined national DNA databank]. I think it’s clear the money is being used efficiently, it’s just never enough.”
Angelo DellaManna, director of the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, said the funding from the Smith Act has “increased our testing, improved our turnaround time and gotten more hits in the DNA database. But as law enforcement gets more educated about DNA testing, they submit more and more cases.”
“Turnaround time” — from when a sample is sent to the lab to when results are received — is always a hot topic with police investigators. DellaManna said that time used to be about a year. The GAO study said the national average is now about 150 days, and that number did not decrease between 2011 and 2017.
“Our goal is 90 days,” said DellaManna. “That’s the gold standard in the country.” He noted that “roughly 11 percent of our cases are serial cases,” meaning people who commit multiple crimes. “We want to identify the perpetrator before he offends again.”
Another problem that is slowly being addressed is unsubmitted samples: evidence sitting in police storage that, for one reason or another, was not sent to the lab for testing. The GAO study did not have numbers on how many cases were unsubmitted, but Berkowitz said police gradually have realized they have an obligation to dig out the old samples and submit them, and many states have passed laws requiring police to review their evidence rooms for unsubmitted evidence, adding to labs’ workloads.
The GAO study noted that scientific advancements have enabled scientists to develop DNA profiles from “touch DNA,” from the simple touching of an object, which wasn’t previously possible. That increased the types of evidence crime scene investigators could search for, and that labs can now test for. Increased awareness of DNA also has led detectives to resubmit samples in hopes of solving cold cases, sending even more cases to the lab.
“I think the labs are doing a spectacular job,” Berkowitz said, “but they’re drinking from a fire hose.”
The GAO report was critical of the National Institute of Justice, which administers the DNA Capacity Enhancement and Backlog Reduction grant program, for not accurately monitoring the progress of the labs to which it provided money. Specifically, the GAO found that the goals of the program were not clearly stated. The GAO then met with the National Institute of Justice, which clarified that the goals were to increase the labs’ testing capacity and reduce the testing backlog.
But, the GAO said, “NIJ later reported that eliminating the nationwide backlog is not a program goal. Officials stated they believe the goal of eliminating backlogs is unachievable in the foreseeable future because increases in demand for DNA analysis are driven by factors outside of NIJ’s control. Thus, officials said they are not comfortable setting an unachievable goal and reporting data related to that goal that may be misinterpreted.”
A response to the GAO report by Matt M. Dummermuth, the deputy assistant attorney general overseeing the NIJ, said the goals of increased testing and reduced backlogs had “repeatedly and consistently been communicated to applicants and grant recipients,” and would be further communicated in the future.