States Rush to Get Rid of DNA Backlogs

Friday marks the deadline for states to apply for a federal funding program that pays out cash so states can get rid of their massive backlogs of criminal DNA.

State police around the country have piles of DNA samples sitting around, waiting to be analyzed and recorded into DNA databanks.

States have until close of business Friday to apply for some of the $100 million available from the Justice Department to help states reduce their caseloads. About $40 million is available to help states reduce the "convicted offender" DNA backlog and $60 million to analyze "no-suspect cases," where police so far have no suspects.

The National Institutes of Justice, the agency within the Justice Department that doles out the cash, is also reviewing the few applications left over from last year and expects to award grants over the next month. After Friday, it will begin reviewing new state applications.

Money will be used by the states to buy equipment, DNA testing and storage supplies, pay officers and consultants overtime and help process more cases.

DNA collections are used by states to determine possible suspects in crimes. The DNA databases are particularly helpful in linking criminals who have committed past crimes to new ones.

"It’s an excellent crime-fighting tool, it’s just incredible," said Texas Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Twela Mange.

Maine, one of 13 states to receive money last year under the No Suspect Casework DNA Backlog Reduction Program, got $376,000 to compare its 400 forensic samples, such as hair and blood, found at crime scenes with a backlog of 500 convicted felons whose DNA needs to be processed.

"The idea is to get the most benefit out of our DNA database," said Tim Kupferschmid, director of the Maine State Police Crime Laboratory. "We don’t have the resources to keep up with the problems."

Maine already has 4,500 samples of genetic material from offenders in its database.

Texas received over $3.3 million last year from the federal government to eliminate its backlog. The state is applying for more money this year.

Texas officials say they have about 13,000 DNA samples submitted by convicted offenders waiting to be analyzed and entered into the database.

But not everyone applauds the DNA system.

Privacy advocates have argued the databanks violate civil and privacy rights.

The American Civil Liberties Union, for one, argues that if DNA is used to find offenders, states must also allow people convicted of crimes access to DNA testing that may find them innocent.

"While DNA databases may be useful to identify criminals, I am skeptical that we will ward off the temptation to expand their use," ACLU Associate Director Barry Steinhardt said in a statement. "Although we have already entered the realm of the ‘Brave New World,’ it is not too late to turn back."

Texas, however, has set its course. As of Sept. 1 of last year, in addition to convicted murderers, burglars and aggravated assault assailants, convicted sex offenders must also give up their genetic code.

"There were some folks slipping through the cracks," Mange said. "As we are able to eliminate backlog from the inmate samples, we suspect we will be able to solve even more crimes."

Mange said the system has so far helped solve at least 100 crimes in Texas. Within eight months of the state importing DNA samples into its database through CODIS, its system that lets it hook up with other state and federal databases, Texas officials were able to capture a repeat sex offender, who was traveling from town to town, sexually assaulting children, then leaving without a trace.

"Investigators said they never would have solved this case in a million years without CODIS," Mange said.

CODIS, which stands for Combined DNA Index System, is a national network supported by more than 10 labs across the country and helps solves cases with no known suspects. CODIS enables federal, state, and local crime labs to exchange and compare DNA profiles electronically, thereby linking crimes to each other and to convicted offenders.

Started as a pilot project in 1990 in 14 labs, Congress authorized the FBI in 1994 to turn the databank system into a national program. As of June, CODIS has 35,851 forensic profiles and 977,895 convicted offender profiles.