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State of Unprocessed DNA Evidence Examined

The federal government initiated a study in 2007 to examine the state of unprocessed DNA evidence within state and local law enforcement agencies and its effect on the criminal justice system. That study was recently completed and publicly released Nov. 10. It was funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) within the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office of Justice Programs.

“The 2007 Survey of Law Enforcement Forensic Evidence Processing” provides a nationwide examination of forensic evidence in police custody, including evidence processing and retention policies. It was conducted to estimate the number of unsolved criminal cases containing forensic evidence that had not been submitted to crime laboratories for analysis. The survey was completed by 2,250 state and local law enforcement agencies. Its report findings address the ability of law enforcement agencies to deal with substantial forensic case backlogs for homicide, rape, and property cases.

In 2007, the agencies responsive to the survey reported that among unsolved crimes, forensic evidence was collected in 88 percent of homicides, 73 percent of rapes, and 29 percent of property crimes. A considerable number of unsolved cases also contained forensic evidence that was never submitted to a crime laboratory for analysis: 14 percent of open, unsolved homicides, 18 percent of open, unsolved rapes, and 23 percent of open, unsolved property crimes.

There are reasons why a law enforcement agency may not submit forensic evidence to a lab. The evidence may be considered not probative, charges may have been dropped or a guilty plea entered. However, the researchers who conducted the NIJ-funded survey also concluded that some law enforcement agencies may not fully understand the value of evidence in developing new investigative leads.

“Nearly one in five (17 percent) agencies reported that forensic evidence had not been submitted because they did not feel the evidence was useful to the case,” the report states. “Nearly half of responding agencies indicated that they may not submit evidence if a suspect had not yet been identified (44 percent).”

According to survey results, large police agencies – those with 100 or more sworn officers – and municipal police agencies account for the highest numbers of backlogged homicide, rape, and property cases. Regionally, the South accounted for the highest number of backlogged homicide, rape, and property cases followed by the West.

The survey results also suggest that analysis of the backlogged data could have a significant effect on arrests and prosecutions by supporting new leads and more arrests. This is particularly true of property cases.

One of the study findings states that agencies should develop more uniform procedures and processes to ensure that “when evidence is probative it is submitted and analyzed in a timely fashion.” It also asserts that prioritization of evidence should be based on its likeliness of closing the case and case seriousness.

Such a recommendation would require additional law enforcement and crime laboratory resources, as would guidelines and documentation required for evidence retention in law enforcement agencies, and enhanced information systems that can systematically track and monitor forensic evidence associated with criminal cases. These were additional recommendations based on the fact that less than half of all agency respondents reported having an information system capable of tracking forensic evidence.

With the proposed changes made, law enforcement agencies would be able to specify what evidence has been tested or has not been tested in a case, how long the evidence in a case has been in storage, and the status of cases for which forensic evidence was collected. Part of the enhanced system would also require working with prosecutors to develop systems for flagging evidence that is eligible for destruction.

Another report recommendation suggests that greater attention should be placed on the processing of forensic evidence in mid- to small-sized police departments. It again suggests that this is due to a lesser capacity for formal grant writing and grant funding, at mid- to small-sized departments.

According to the report, only one percent of police agencies with 50 or fewer officers reported having a backlog reduction program or initiative in place.

A copy of the full report can be found at:

http://www.ojp.gov/nij/topics/law-enforcement/handling-evidence/unanalyzed-evidence.htm

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