Reducing the DNA backlog

Florida involves local law enforcement to prescreen evidence

     Frustrated with the DNA backlog and turnaround time at its state laboratory, the sheriff's office in Marion County, Florida, sought funding and personnel to open its own DNA lab, but National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC) Executive Director Kevin Lothridge advised against it.

     The upfront costs of a DNA laboratory (nearly $5 million) may not seem like much in some respects, Lothridge explains, but the care and maintenance these labs are very expensive long-term.

     Common forensic services such as latent print examination and crime scene investigation are found in many law enforcement agencies. However, providing DNA analysis is far more challenging based on the complexities of the technologies used, he says.

     Marion County Sheriff Ed Dean and Lt. Bill Sowder discussed with Lothridge how the sheriff's office could efficiently handle evidence to provide the most timely and necessary service. As a result of their decisions, the sheriff's office decided not to build a full DNA laboratory and perform DNA analysis, but to take on what is typically the most labor-intensive and backlog-causing process in a DNA laboratory: the screening phase. In January 2007 the sheriff's office began constructing the first stand-alone DNA screening lab.

     Using its existing screening program for crime laboratories, the NFSTC worked with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) and the Marion County Sheriff's Office to create a model, or pilot, program in which local agencies screen items for biological evidentiary value before sending them to one of FDLE's six regional biology laboratories that perform DNA analysis. The program was first implemented in Marion County and has since been employed by the Seminole County Sheriff's Office as well.

     Screening or prescreening potential evidence before the items are sent to the crime laboratory is one of 10 FDLE initiatives intended to eliminate or lessen its DNA backlog, which hit a high of 4,815 pending cases in November 2006. "We were getting more evidence than we could possibly handle in any kind of timely manner, and we knew agencies were not satisfied with the time it was taking to get answers back to them," says FDLE Assistant Commissioner Ken Tucker.

     Mutual frustration prompted the FDLE to reevaluate the way it was doing business. To come up with its 10-point forensic science plan last year (See "A 10-point strategy" at right), the FDLE met with local (including county) agencies, sought their input and engaged them to be part of the solution by prescreening evidence.

Five items or fewer

     No. 1 on the list of new initiatives announced last year is a set of case acceptance guidelines (used in four forensic disciplines: biology, firearms, drug chemistry and latent prints) to lessen the number of items coming into FDLE. One of the guidelines requires local agencies (those best suited to prioritize their potential evidence) to decide which items are most valuable and to initially submit no more than five. Depending on what is found and not found, additional items may be accepted later. Also, the five-item limit does not include reference samples. Tucker says limiting the number of submissions is a form of prescreening because historically agencies collected everything they could and sent items in bulk. For example, in a single case, FDLE might receive 100 or even hundreds of items.

     With a limitless number of submissions, the volume of potential evidence coming in to FDLE was so large that it was difficult for it to establish priorities. Limiting the number of submissions allows FDLE forensic analysts to work more cases and provide more agencies and investigators with information that may help them with their cases in a more timely fashion.

No more duplication of effort
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