Illinois sees more than 30-percent reduction in state forensic backlog

Published: Jul. 6, 2020 at 8:04 PM CDT
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On Wednesday, July 1 Illinois State Police (ISP) Director Brendan Kelly announced the State has achieved a 33-percent overall reduction in its biology and forensic DNA backlog.

Forensic backlogs are a challenge faced by crime laboratories across the country, explained Kelly. He said the state of Illinois is not exempt.

“It’s that type of evidence which can be critical to being able to solve a case, and being able to ultimately get a conviction... an outcome for victims of crime. That outcome is justice,” said Kelly.

In a report released by the state, it said, “DNA testing in forensic cases is rapidly increasing for reasons, not limited to, but including cold cases, post-conviction DNA testing, scientific advances, property crimes and the overall knowledge of potential that DNA has to solve cases.”

“One of the toughest challenges is the cold cases because sometimes you’re going out as far as familial DNA, so those standards sometimes are tough to come by in themselves. The quicker you can get on top of one of those investigations, the easier it will be,” said Moline Police Detective John Leach. “Once a cold case has been sitting around for years, a lot of your leads and sometimes suspects have disappeared or died.”

Kelly explained, “Nationally, for every forensic assignment completed, another 1.2 are created. Backlogs are created in part by a greater demand by criminal justice stakeholders and the public for forensic testing, advancing technologies, including contact/touch DNA, submission of biology testing in property crimes, and resubmission of evidence in cases where certain types of testing was previously unavailable.”

According to Kelly, the long-term under-investment in Illinois labs, combined with a lack of access to the latest technology contributed to the problem of the state’s backlog.

In 2019 a Forensic Science Task Force was formed by Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker to help reduce the backlog and address challenges of forensic services. ISP said the task force includes 15 representatives from law enforcement, the defense bar, prosecutors, advocacy groups and more.

ISP said they have deployed technology to assist in reductions of backlogs and turnaround times, implemented laboratory accountability measures, robotics, Rapid DNA and more, including the hiring and training of additional forensic scientists.

“In the last year, during every month, the backlog has gone down for biology DNA,” said Kelly. “We have a long way to go, but we are moving in the right direction.”

Kelly said one way to be transparent is to provide data. ISP has now announced a new dashboard, which provides information on processing times and backlogs.

“The only way you can measure productivity, the only way you can measure success is if you have something to measure,” he said. “The only way you can make sure those measurements mean anything is if it’s transparent, people know about it and can make decisions based upon the metrics that they’re seeing. That’s why putting all of this information out there is so important. The more transparent you are, and all of the various criminal justice stakeholders whether it’s a scientist, a criminal investigator, prosecutors, judges, public defenders, or victims, they can see that information and we can see where the log jam may be occurring.”

“By laying it all out there we’re going to wind up having some uncomfortable conversations. There’s going to be some pressure on different parts of the criminal justice system even more. We think that pressure is a good thing,” said Kelly.

In cases of sexual assault or sexual abuse crimes, Kelly said the state is sitting under a five-month backlog as an average for sexual assault kit testing.

Kelly explained there can be circumstances and challenges that can cause the age of a DNA assignment to be shorter or longer, such as type of DNA being tested, whether further tests are required, and whether the DNA was collected in a sterile environment, among other factors.

“Right now we’ve got the average time it takes below five months. It’s been longer historically and we’re moving that process in a positive direction,” said Kelly. “We have some cases with complications it could take longer, we have some we’re turning around very, very quickly. That brings the average to under five months. I would like to see us get it down to 90 days.”

Leach said, “It’s a game-changer. There’s different ways DNA evidence can be used. Talking strictly sexual assaults, when you’re talking with children or adults a lot of times the DNA is located during a sex assault kit and then we try to match up that DNA with the suspect, but sometimes we have no name, so we’re trying to look through a database so a lot of times we have nowhere to start on our investigation until it comes back.”

“A lot of times with children you can get a rush on the DNA and that was about 12 months before this,” Leach said. “It enables us to easily do our job. There’s victims and they want answers and making them wait a year, a year and a half is awful to do, especially with children.”

“Now that we’ve sped that up I think it’s going to be better for children because of the closure, getting people off the streets. A lot of the time the suspects aren’t behind bars because at the time law enforcement didn’t have enough to charge so it’s nice to provide some security and safety to some of those children,” said Leach.

“I think this is a great thing and I’m really proud of the state for getting this moving,” he said.

Kelly announced on July 1, “The DFS will continue efforts to implement an online sexual assault tracking system by the end of 2020. Once implemented, the sexual assault tracking system will allow survivors of sexual assault to monitor their evidence online throughout the entire process, from collection at the hospital, through law enforcement pick-up and submission to the forensic lab, and lastly to the State’s Attorney’s office where final results are received.”

In a letter to Governor J.B. Pritzker on behalf of all members of the Forensic Sciences Task Force, Kelly wrote, “Among many evidence-based recommendations, the Task Force strongly recommends the creation of a permanent statutory Illinois Forensic Science Commission that includes the voice of victims of crime and all stakeholders in the justice system.”

The state has six laboratories and nearly 500 forensic services personnel.

Kelly said DFS completed more than 70,000 forensic assignments last year.

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