The crime lab in Washington, D.C. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Uncle Sam doesn’t like to surrender.

But that seems to be the case in his losing effort to reduce, not to mention eliminate, the steadily growing national backlog in DNA testing to fight crime.

One paragraph in an 111-page Government Accountability Office report on the growing backlog describes the capitulation with these troubling lines: Justice Department officials “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 (the department’s National Institute of Justice) control. Thus, officials said they are not comfortable setting an unachievable goal. …”

The factors increasing the backlog are winning. Ironically, the reason the backlog grows, as my colleague Tom Jackman reported in The Washington Post last week, is that DNA testing is a victim of its own success.

From 2011 through 2017, the backlog of state and local government requests for DNA analysis grew by 85 percent, from approximately 91,000 to about 169,000.

“They can’t keep up,” said Gretta L. Goodwin, GAO’s director of homeland security and justice. The report was issued Friday.

Success breeds the backlog, but the backlog needs to stop.

“The continued and worsening backlogs of forensics evidence testing is unacceptable,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who requested the GAO report, told the Federal Insider. “Victims of terrible crimes shouldn’t have to wait — for years, in some cases — to get a shot at justice before the statutes of limitation expire.”

DNA is critical in law enforcement for the prosecution and the defense. DNA analysis is routinely used to try to prove guilt and innocence. The Innocence Project reports that “364 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 20 who served time on death row.”

Twenty people who were scheduled to die left prison alive because of DNA testing. But how many innocent people were executed or incarcerated for years before testing was available or because of backlogs in the testing pipeline? How many guilty people went unpunished? Clearing the backlog is essential. But now Justice deems it unachievable.

Not so, said Greg Totten, a board member of the National District Attorneys Association. I don’t agree … that reducing the backlog is an unachievable goal,” said Totten, who is the district attorney of Ventura County, Calif. “For me as a prosecutor who deals with crime victims a great deal, I want the backlog reduced. … I would just tell you as a prosecutor I want to continue to fight the backlog.”

The fight is being won in Ventura County, where the sheriff runs the crime lab. “They’ve gotten additional resources,” Totten said, “and maintain a backlog of virtually zero on sexual assault kits.”

Uncle Sam has fought the good fight, awarding almost $1 billion since 2004 to state and local government crime labs to increase their capacity and cut backlogs. That’s a lot of money, but not enough. Eliminating the backlog is possible if enough resources are allocated.

“Specifically, labs have continued to receive more requests for DNA analysis than they can complete each year,” the GAO found, “even though labs have consistently completed an increasing number of requests over time.”

The report identified several factors that, while positive, lead to the growing backlog:

“Scientific advancements have increased the amount of evidence that is eligible to be analyzed and, as a result, have increased the demand for DNA analysis.”

· Cuts in turnaround times for DNA analysis encourage law enforcement officials to request more DNA analysis.

· “Increased awareness among law enforcement officers of the value of DNA analysis in solving current and older cases has led to law enforcement agencies submitting more DNA evidence to labs for analysis.”

· A growing number of states now require police to submit sexual assault kits for DNA testing. At least 27 states had those laws as of September. Eleven required testing of previously untested kits; 23 of the state laws were approved in or after 2014.

The Justice Department declined to comment for this article. In July, Gerald LaPorte, director of the NIJ Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that “increasing requests for DNA testing are outpacing increased productivity … until the capacity to work more DNA cases and DNA database samples equals the increasing demand for more DNA cases to be tested, as well as the increasing state legislative requirements expanding the collection of DNA database samples from convicted offenders and arrestees — or until supply equals demand — the backlogs will continue to grow, and NIJ will continue to work to eliminate them.”

But that’s work toward a goal they don’t expect to achieve.

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