Emphasis on DNA is delaying lab work on other evidence

As governments move towards DNA sampling of all arrestees, labs facing overwhelming burden amid continuing quality concerns.

As state and federal legislators focus on reducing the backlog of DNA testing at crime labs, other forensic evidence - which makes up 95% of the labs workload - is being ignored, according to a report on Stateline.org.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) in February unveiled a plan to slash his state’s DNA backlog while in Wisconsin, the same problem has become an issue in the state’s increasingly bitter race for attorney general. President Bush also has made eliminating DNA backlogs a high priority as part of a five-year, $1 billion DNA Initiative.

At the same time, non-DNA evidence sits unexamined in most of the nation’s estimated 350 publicly funded crime labs, Wells said – slowing down all forensic analysis. More than 200 of those labs are state or regional facilities. “If you stress [DNA] above all else, everything else suffers,” Wells told Stateline.org.

In Illinois, the governor's plan has resulted in more funding and more training for DNA analysis, trimming the backlog, but “backlogs in other areas have increased,” said Larry Trent, director of the Illinois State Police.

In Wisconsin, candidates for district attorney have been attacking each other over the rising DNA backlog.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s backlog of other forensic evidence awaiting analysis, such as fingerprints, still numbers in the thousands, according to Michael Bauer of the state Department of Justice – though he said it has been trimmed in recent years.

Federally, funds provided under the DNA Initiative can only be used for DNA-related work. Funding for other forms of forensic analysis pales in comparison. In September, the Department of Justice announced $84 million in funds under the DNA Initiative and $13.6 million for other areas of forensic science.

Meanwhile, governments are pushing for major expansions of DNA sampling. Kansas, New Mexico and the federal government as well as California, Louisiana, Texas, Minnesota and Virginia have authorized the collection of DNA samples from those arrested for – but not yet convicted of – certain crimes. It's not clear what value this wave of sampling would have, “If they all do arrestee sampling, it’s going to be an avalanche of new casework,” Earl Wells, director of the American Society of Crime Lab Directors, said.

And overwhelming workloads can't be good for quality, which is already an issue as Houston Police Department’s lab was found in 2002 to have badly undertrained staff. There, mishandled evidence led to the wrongful incarceration of two men. The lab opened for the first time in three years last month.

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