With tax restructuring and law enforcement budget cuts in Florida, there are agencies that want to do DNA screening but must wait. Of all the processes in the biology section, Scott points out that screening is the least expensive. Yet there are still reoccurring costs including salaries, supplies and continuing education and training.
In setting up the Marion County lab, Sowder aimed to be frugal and succeed with a budget coming in at $235,000, which is $15,000 less than planned. The cost included converting 960 square feet of office space into a restricted-access laboratory; replacing carpet with industrial tile; setting up stainless-steel tables for easy cleaning; custom-making furniture to maximize functionality; purchasing new equipment (less than $100,000); and providing salaries and benefits for three DNA screening technicians.The bottleneck nationwide
If more law enforcement agencies providing forensic services from various states start screening items for DNA, Lothridge says that potential evidence doesn't need to wait on the bottleneck of the crime laboratory.
"Nationwide, there are many more forensic service providers among the 19,000 law agencies compared to only 425 crime labs," he says. "You can see the neck gets pretty tight. If local forensic service providers can provide that timely, necessary service, we're going to be better able to stop people from doing things they shouldn't be doing before we wait for crime lab analysis."
Before a local agency starts planning a screening lab, Ahern says it must have the full cooperation of the lab doing the analysis. Working with a local agency to train personnel and ensure proper procedures are in place can be very time consuming for a state agency.
Yet, prescreening is helpful says McNamara, "Crime laboratories are no longer in a position to analyze all items, in all cases, all the time. If they did, they would provide no timely information on many of those cases."
McNamara encourages other state laboratories to at least consider working with local agencies to do prescreening, which can take many forms. Local agencies can help by sending cuttings instead of whole items (a piece of fabric instead of a pair of jeans), when appropriate — and many agencies are already doing that, he says.
"Do whatever you can to enhance your communication with the agencies that are sending you evidence," Tucker tells state agencies.
While Florida works to reduce existing backlogs, researchers continually strive to advance DNA technology. "When we can do more analysis with the help of technology, we are given more cases to work," says Davis, who's seen the number of analysts in her lab grow from five in the 1980s to 20 today. "Instead of working only sexual assaults and homicides, we're working burglaries, car thefts, and all kinds of cases that can be solved using CODIS." Because new ways have been found for forensic analysts to work more efficiently, Davis hopes the backlog won't increase as more demands are placed on forensic analysts.
At the Marion County Sheriff's Office, Sowder today appears less frustrated and more enthusiastic about being part of Florida's efforts to reduce this DNA backlog. He encourages other agencies to get involved, too. "If you don't," he says, "it's going to take you longer to solve crimes — or crimes will go unsolved."
Rebecca Kanable is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin and can be reached at email@example.com.A 10-point strategy
As local law enforcement increasingly realized the power of DNA technology, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) began to see more DNA submissions from not only violent crimes but property crimes as well. In five years, submissions had increased 20 percent.
"We realized we couldn't keep doing business the way we had been or we were just going to keep getting a bigger and bigger backlog," says FDLE Assistant Commissioner Ken Tucker. "That made it absolutely necessary that we take actions to somehow reduce what was coming in the door, prioritize better, work smarter and work more efficiently."
Since the agency began implementing some of the points in its 10-point plan, FDLE has reduced its backlog in four disciplines (biology, drug chemistry, firearms, latent prints) by 71 percent as of January 2008.