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WSU researchers uncover crime DNA testing backlog

Counter to what viewers see on “CSI” and similar popular television shows, a recent study at Washington State University suggests forensic DNA analysis remains a woefully under-used technology in investigating criminal felony cases throughout the United States.

Based on information provided by law enforcement and criminal forensic laboratories, the new study suggests available biological crime scene evidence from roughly a quarter million unsolved rapes and homicides nationally since 1982 has yet to be subjected to the type of DNA testing that could aid in identifying a suspect.

“In the relatively brief amount of time forensic DNA has been available to the criminal justice system, its impact has proven remarkable – from the conviction of rapists and murderers to the exoneration of wrongly convicted inmates on death row,” said Travis Pratt, an associate professor of criminal justice at WSU. “But the effectiveness of forensic DNA has created a tremendous testing demand that is not met by the available supply.”

The study was conducted by Pratt, Michael J. Gaffney and Nicholas P. Lovrich, faculty members of the WSU Department of Political Science/Criminal Justice, and Charles L. Johnson, a graduate doctoral candidate. It was based on survey data taken from a scientific sampling of law enforcement agencies in all 50 states, as well as information reported directly by the 50 state and 70 local forensic laboratories across the country.

The findings reveal a growing backlog of unsolved felony cases nationally – including roughly 400,000 unsolved rapes and homicides going back two decades. More than half those cases, researchers found, provide some amount of as-yet-untested biological evidence that could potentially reveal important DNA information.

“The backlog of unsolved rapes and homicides in the U.S. is just massive,” the study concludes. “If you look at the upper limits, there may be more than 432,000 unsolved rape cases and homicides nationally. Significantly, our research estimates that somewhere between 221,000 to 278,000 of those unsolved cases provide investigators with potential DNA evidence from the crime scene that has never been properly analyzed.”

When the researchers added in estimates of the number of unsolved property crimes, they found the total national backlog of unsolved felony cases dating back to 1982 may actually run as high as 700,000.

“When you add together all of the major unsolved offenses that provide law enforcement agencies with biological evidence – rapes, homicides and property crimes – the estimated number of unsolved cases in the U.S. that could potentially benefit from DNA analysis rises to more than half a million,” they report.

While the study confirms that a lack of funding and other resources inhibits the ability of law enforcement to conduct needed laboratory testing, it also raises the possibility that an even greater obstacle may be that “a significant proportion of law enforcement agencies continue to misunderstand the potential benefits of forensic DNA testing.”

Part of the problem, the researchers found, is that most law enforcement agencies continue to view DNA evidence as supplemental evidence – that is, as evidence more useful to prosecutors in obtaining a conviction than to investigators in identifying the perpetrator.

“Nearly one-fourth of all the surveyed law enforcement agencies reported that one of the primary reasons for not sending DNA to a crime laboratory was the lack of a suspect in the case,” the study indicates. “The problem with that is that those are the very types of cases in which the current national DNA database of existing criminal offenders can be most useful.”

Researchers’ concerns that DNA analysis may be an underused technology in criminal investigations were further enhanced by survey responses indicating some law enforcement agencies were unaware of the existence of the national DNA database, known as CODIS, or the Combined DNA Index System, they said.

While acknowledging that law enforcement agencies can be brought “up to speed” over time on the benefits of forensic DNA analysis in criminal investigations, the researchers found that funding and resource issues will also need to be addressed before the current backlog in laboratory testing can be substantially reduced.

“Both state and local crime laboratories are overworked, understaffed and insufficiently funded,” the study concludes. “These agencies simply do not have the capacity to handle their current caseloads – let alone their anticipated backlogs for the near future – in a timely manner.”

Indeed, the research indicates that staffing and operational constraints on crime laboratories are so pronounced that law enforcement agencies report they often must wait for as long as one to two years for DNA results, even in cases involving a named suspect known to be included in the national database. The wait can be much longer in cases related to property crimes, according to the study, which quotes some law enforcement officials as indicating they must wait more than four years for lab results in cases that are not deemed to be of “major significance.”

The study suggests such long wait times raise even larger issues about the evidence collection practices of law enforcement.

“You have to ask how much potentially valuable DNA evidence is simply not collected by law enforcement officials who have little hope that forensic analysis will be conducted in a timely manner,” the researchers wrote. “Certain comments from law enforcement agencies on this issue seem to indicate that this may be a bigger problem than anticipated.”

The report concludes that “rather minimal” federal funding for state and local crime laboratories is a factor contributing to the long delays in evidence processing.

“There is clearly a greater potential role for the federal government to play in assisting with the current backlog problem,” the study concludes. “There is also a concomitant need for state and local governments to re-evaluate their degree of investment in forensic crime laboratories, given that demand for services has far outstripped the availability of access to forensic DNA analysis over the past several years.”

Titled “This Isn’t “CSI”: Estimating the National Backlog of Forensic DNA Cases and the Barriers Associated with Case Processing,” the study is slated for publication in an upcoming issue of the journal “Criminal Justice Policy Review.”

Pratt is an associate professor whose research focuses primarily on correctional policy and integrated theories of crime and delinquency. Gaffney is the associate director of the Division of Governmental Studies and Services at WSU, where his research interests include social capital, ethics, biased policing, democratization, alternative dispute resolution, community oriented policing and citizen-government relations. Lovrich has been the Claudius O. and Mary W. Johnson Distinguished Professor of Political Science since 1998 and has served as the director for the Division of Governmental Studies and Services at WSU since 1977. His research on police administration and policing policy has been published in a number of journals. Johnson holds a master’s degree in criminal justice from California State University – Sacramento. His research interests include law enforcement policies and practices, and clearance rates associated with cold-case processing.

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