"For every DNA analysis request completed by the largest forensic crime laboratories in 2002, nearly two requests remained outstanding. Overall, laboratories estimated they needed a 90-percent increase in full-time personnel performing DNA analysis to achieve a 30-day turnaround on requests."
This looming statement, as reported in the September 2004 Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) Fact Sheet, "50 Largest Crime Labs, 2002," gives a snapshot of the building DNA backlog chasm.
"The backlog is growing by leaps and bounds," says Bill Marbaker, president of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD). "We are basically victims of our own successes."
In March 2003, the Department of Justice estimated the number of backlogged DNA-convicted offender samples in the United States to be between 200,000 and 300,000, with an additional 500,000 to 1 million samples yet to be collected.
"There are just too many cases and not enough resources to have them all worked in-house," says Blaine Kern, president of Human Identification Technologies, whose company slogan is "Genetic Justice." "That is really where independent labs come in. There wouldn't be a need for the governmental crime labs to outsource to private laboratories if they were able to handle the backlog."
Frankenstein's DNA monster
Since the advent of the FBI Laboratory's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) in the late 1990s, DNA processing has taken on a life of its own. The system that once contained 210,000 profiles in 1999 now houses more than 4.1 million profiles as of December 2006.
Depending on state laws, DNA profiles are being gathered from a range of people — convicted offenders to arrestees. In some states samples are being taken from all felons, not just those who commit violent or sexual offenses.
"Missouri has been an all felon-offender profiling state for two years now," says Marbaker, also the assistant director for the Missouri State Highway Patrol Crime Laboratory Division. "In 2006 we had 716 offender hits against unsolved casework. The highest we ever had before we went to all-felon was 41. You can see the effect it had, but of course our database has more than quadrupled in size in two years, too."
Seven states currently have legislation allowing for the collection of DNA upon arrest, an additional 21 are considering such legislation.
The decision to screen all arrestees has placed an additional burden on public crime labs. In Virginia, not only are the labs responsible for testing arrestee DNA, but they also must verify if the suspect has been found not guilty or the charges dropped and remove the profile from the system.
"We've got a two- or three-week window when we take the sample, process it and search it against the database one time before we know it has to come out," explains Pete Marone, director of the Virginia Department of Forensic Science. During this time, the lab can identify if the arrestee already has a profile in CODIS and allow for the possibility of hitting on a related active or cold case.
After the two-week processing time, the Virginia labs verify the status of the arrestees with the state police department and remove the samples from the system if necessary. Marone notes that in other states, the responsibility is put on the arrestee himself to notify the crime lab that he has been exonerated and requests that the samples be removed from the system.
One backlog for another
Considering the growth in the DNA sampling pool, outsourcing to private laboratories can be what gets the DNA backlog monkey off a crime lab's back.
"Where I see the private lab's role right now is filling that gap during the governmental crime laboratories' time of need," says Kern. "They are working feverishly to increase their local capacities and trying to solve more crimes. At the same time, we can become a very valuable asset in filling the gap."