The DNA Backlog
As a result of an increased awareness of the potential for DNA evidence to help solve criminal cases, the demand for DNA testing continues to grow nationwide. Crime laboratories now process more DNA than ever before, but their expanded capacity cannot meet the increased demand.
Although no official definition exists for the DNA backlog, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) defines a backlogged case as one that remains untested for 30 days after it has been submitted to a laboratory. Because backlogs are not static—the number of backlogged cases in crime laboratories changes daily—identifying exact numbers of backlogged cases is difficult. In many laboratories, new DNA submissions come in at a rate faster than case reports go out. This means the backlog of cases pending analysis is always changing—and growing. Until the capacity to analyze case DNA equals new requests for this analysis, backlogs will continue to expand.
Two kinds of DNA backlogs are found in crime laboratories. Casework backlogs consist of forensic evidence collected from crime scenes, victims, and suspects in criminal cases and submitted to a laboratory. Processing this type of evidence is time consuming because it must be screened to determine if biological materials are present before DNA testing can even begin. Some of these samples can be degraded or fragmented, meaning their quality has been compromised, and can contain DNA from multiple suspects and victims.
By 2009, the federal government and all 50 states had passed bills requiring that DNA always be collected from suspects under arrest and offenders convicted of certain crimes. This evidence accounts for the other types of DNA backlogs at laboratories. These samples are tested, reviewed, and uploaded into the national DNA database, CODIS (Combined DNA Index System), which is operated by the FBI.
Evidence collected and stored in law enforcement evidence rooms awaiting laboratory analysis is not part of a crime laboratory backlog. NIJ considers this untested evidence not yet sent to laboratories to be a separate issue from backlogs in crime laboratories. Untested evidence in law enforcement custody becomes part of a crime laboratory backlog only when law enforcement agencies submit the evidence to a crime laboratory.
What OJP Is Doing
Congress has provided hundreds of millions of dollars to crime laboratories to help them reduce their backlog of DNA cases. Much of this help has come through the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), which has several federal grant programs that have helped labs clear their backlogs. Between 2005 and 2008, for example, NIJ programs helped state and local laboratories increase their capacity for analyzing DNA evidence almost threefold, which has helped laboratories to either reduce current backlogs or slow their growth.
NIJ offers assistance to state and local DNA labs through the DNA Backlog Reduction Program, with the short-term goal of providing funds for labs to process more DNA cases and/or DNA database samples in-house, or to outsource them to another DNA lab. This program's long-term goal is to increase laboratories' capacity to work more cases or database samples by allowing them to hire more personnel; purchase and install robotic workstations; improve software to interpret DNA test results; and enhance the overall efficiency of DNA laboratory operations by novel and innovative means.
- DNA Research and Development Portfolio
- Making Sense of DNA Backlogs, 2010 — Myths vs. Reality
- The 2007 Survey of Law Enforcement Forensic Evidence Processing
- 2007 DNA Evidence and Offender Analysis Measurement: DNA Backlogs, Capacity and Funding
- Census of Publicly Funded Forensic Crime Laboratories, 2005
- Forensic Science Training Program
- Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) Web Page
Assistant Attorney General
October 2010 Press Release
- A sample of more than 2,000 agencies found that 14 percent of unsolved homicide cases (an estimated 3,975 cases) and 18 percent of unsolved rape cases (an estimated 27,595 cases) contained forensic evidence not submitted by law enforcement agencies to a crime laboratory for analysis.
- 23 percent of all unsolved property crimes (an estimated 5,126,719 cases) contained unanalyzed forensic evidence.
- NIJ has provided funds to assist in testing approximately 1.8 million DNA samples taken from convicted offenders and arrestees since 2005, leading to more than18,000 hits in CODIS.
- As of August 2010, more than 8.7 million offender profiles and 332,000 forensic profiles from crime scene samples had been added to CODIS, resulting in more than 124,800 hits and assisting more than 121,900 investigations.
- 99 percent of publicly funded crime laboratories reported that they would not have sufficient funding if NIJ grants were no longer available.
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