Study: Major Backlog at U.S. Crime Labs

Outdated facilities and a shortage of employees led to a backlog of hundreds of thousands of criminal cases at crime labs around the country, according to a government study released Wednesday.

The overload threatened to delay justice for suspects and victims, said Joseph L. Peterson of the University of Illinois at Chicago (search), a co-author of the Bureau of Justice Statistics (search) study.

"The process of investigations and process of justice itself, not just solution of the case but the movement of the case through the criminal justice system, gets bogged down," Peterson said.

The study examined 351 publicly funded forensic crime labs in 2002. They began the year with 290,000 unfilled requests for forensic services but ended with nearly 500,000, a 70 percent increase.

Peterson said nothing indicates any dramatic change in the level of resources going to the labs over the last few years.

In the period studied, the labs employed about 9,400 full-time workers and had an estimated annual budget of about $750 million, the report said. The labs received about 2.7 million requests for forensic lab services — including DNA (search) analysis, controlled substances evaluation and fingerprinting.

Roughly 1,900 additional full-time employees — at a cost of $70 million — would have been needed to achieve a 30-day turnaround on all requests, the study found.

Peterson said the growing demand for services is linked to interest in DNA testing and television programs such as "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" — and a recognition among investigators that they should be relying more on scientific evidence.

"The entire criminal justice system has been sensitized to the potential payoff from scientific evidence," he said.

A lack of resources affects the quality of the laboratory work, Peterson said. Many labs are in outdated facilities, and some examiners are working with outdated equipment.

"Labs are just trying to process cases as fast as they can, get them out the door," he said. "That becomes the prime objective, and sometimes a very necessary component of labs — ensuring accuracy and quality — takes a back seat to just getting the case done."