The short-staffed Illinois State Police crime lab is grappling with a backlog of thousands of pending tests on biological evidence collected in rapes, murders and other crimes, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.
At the end of February, nearly 3,100 cases were either untested or in the process of being tested more than 30 days after law-enforcement agencies submitted them to the lab, records show. That’s up from about 2,600 cases in mid-2015 and fewer than 130 in 2009.
The growing backlog includes tests on clothing and other items to determine whether samples of semen, blood and other evidence can be recovered.
It also includes tests on biological samples to create DNA profiles of unknown offenders. Those profiles are then compared with a DNA database of known criminals.
Attorney General Lisa Madigan finds the backlog worrisome, said a spokeswoman, Maura Possley.
“We have strongly supported increased funding for ISP and continue to do that,” Possley said of the undermanned state crime lab.
Over the past decade, the state police have whittled down the backlog.
But in 2011, a new state law required law-enforcement agencies to send thousands of untested rape kits to the state crime lab.
In south suburban Robbins alone, 55 untested rape kits were discovered when the Cook County sheriff’s office inspected that police department’s evidence room. All those kits, some dating to the 1980s, were submitted for testing. Five suspects have been charged in the sheriff’s ongoing investigation.
Since 2011, the testing backlog has mushroomed as a result of the additional rape kits submitted to the lab.
Meanwhile, the DNA section of the lab is seriously understaffed, officials say. The agency released a report last summer saying 10 additional scientists were needed to handle DNA testing.
Master Sgt. Matthew Boerwinkle, an Illinois State Police spokesman, said the lab still needs those 10 scientists, five of whom would fill vacancies due to attrition.
State police officials have estimated they would need $1 million in first-year funding to hire those scientists. But during the state’s budget impasse, the funding hasn’t been made available.
The state police have turned to overtime and outsourcing to chip away at the backlog.
In recent years, police and prosecutors have complained about long delays in getting lab results back from the State Police crime lab, especially in cases that don’t have a “rush” designation.
In 2014, for instance, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said the backlog was responsible for a nearly one-year delay in processing key DNA evidence that led to charges against a Chicago Police commander, who was accused of putting a gun in a suspect’s mouth. The commander, Glenn Evans, was later acquitted by a judge, who said she doubted the credibility of the alleged victim.
Last spring, Alvarez and Madigan announced they had formed a statewide task force to improve evidence collection, investigations and prosecutions of sexual assault. One of the goals is to eliminate the DNA backlog.
The task force, which is also led by the St. Clair County state’s attorney and the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, supports the Illinois State Police in seeking state funding for the crime lab “as well as working with them to find grant funding moving forward,” said Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for Alvarez.
The group is also organizing “full-scale sex crimes training for all prosecutors in the state” and coming up with legislation to improve police response, investigations and training in sexual assault cases, Daly said.
Madigan hopes the task force’s efforts will “help encourage more survivors to come forward to report their crimes and help prosecutors to secure justice for survivors in a greater number of cases,” said her spokeswoman, Possley.
Possley pointed to a 2012 estimate by researchers Kimberly Lonsway and Joanne Archambault that less than 20 percent of sexual assaults are reported nationally, less than 5 percent are prosecuted, and less than 3 percent result in prison for the attacker.