12 years ago, Congress passed a bill aimed at bolstering the capacity of state
and local crime labs. It was known as the DNA Analysis Backlog Elimination Act.
The ensuing effort now bears the more modest title of DNA Backlog Reduction
Program. But even with the new name, it is an ambitious venture.
Since 2006, Congress has poured $785 million into helping fix the logjam in DNA
evidence collection at the state and local levels through this and other
There’s no question that a serious problem exists. Recent advances in science
and technology have made DNA a more useful tool for convicting the guilty and
exonerating the innocent, but major backlogs persist, despite broad
acknowledgment that delays in processing DNA evidence are keeping criminals on
“A lot of it is supply and demand,” said Kermit Channel, director of the
Arkansas State Crime Laboratory. “Because the technology offers so much more
today than even 5 or 6 years ago, law enforcement is asking for more and more
Federal help is making a difference. Between 2004 and 2010, the Backlog
Reduction Program, run by the National Institute of Justice, has funded
completion of 172,761 cases and significantly increased state and local DNA
laboratory capacity. Channel credits federal funding with dramatically reducing
the Arkansas backlog — which peaked at 18,000 cases in 2005 — to 4,200 now.
“Without those funding sources, we wouldn’t be anywhere near where we are
today,” Channel said. Federal grants have allowed the state to invest in more
sophisticated equipment that sorts through evidence faster, as well as nine
additional staff members to process the evidence.
Still, while the crime lab is now able to stay up to date with homicides and
sexual assaults, property crimes remain a major driver of the state’s backlog.
Processing evidence of property crimes is critical, Channel said, not just for
solving those offenses but also for investigating others that may have been
committed by the same person.
This is because in addition to analyzing DNA evidence recovered from crime
scenes, crime labs maintain databases that hold DNA profiles of certain
convicted offenders. State and local DNA databases and the national DNA
database, connected through the FBI-run Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS,
have become important tools for solving crimes in cases for which there are no
suspects. As of January 2012, CODIS had led to 171,800 “hits” or matches and
assisted in more than 165,100 investigations, according to the FBI.
As the utility of DNA databases in solving crimes has become apparent, state
policies have expanded to require that more DNA be collected and processed for
inclusion in those databases. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo helped pushed througha
bill that would require DNA from any person convicted of almost any crime to be
included in a database, and about half of states now include DNA from arrestees
who have not been convicted of crimes.
While inclusion of additional offenders and arrestees has made CODIS more
useful, it has also clogged crime labs and raised concerns about privacy for
individuals who have not been convicted, said Sara Katsanis, a researcher at
Duke University’s Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy.
(source: Washington Post)