Illinois has taken another step to address a backlog of thousands of untested DNA samples submitted by police departments to state laboratories.
Governor J.B. Pritzker signed an executive order late last week creating a “task force on forensic science” to study a fix for Illinois’ sample backlog that has doubled in the last two years.
“This is going to be very, very important,” Illinois State Police Acting Director Brendan Kelly said at the order’s signing. “The governor rightly wants us to be the premier laboratory system in this country.”
The state has seen a growing backlog of untested samples and has struggled to improve testing turnaround time.
State labs have more than 8,000 unfinished DNA tests, according to June numbers from ISP. More than 2,700 of those cases involve sexual assault or abuse.
Over half of the 8,000 cases were received by laboratories more than 180 days prior, the report states. As of July 30, the average turnaround time of a state DNA test was 288 days, according to ISP spokeswoman Jacqueline Cepeda.
In 2016, the total backlog was 4,000 cases, according to state records. The backlog grew to about 5,100 in 2018.
Illinois has six forensic science labs and tests samples for 1,200 state and local agencies, Kelly said. The labs are staffed by nearly 500 forensic personnel complete 70,000 forensic case assignments a year.
In May, Pritzker signed a bill to increase hiring of state forensic technicians. Illinois State Police said it hired 6 trainees for its DNA testing section, and will hire dozens more by the end of the year.
The state is also in the process of joining a federal pilot program “Rapid DNA,” which promises DNA swab tests that take two hours, and can be used on arrestees to check if they are wanted for a crime.
The backlog’s effect on the justice system has been a concern for state Rep. La Shawn K. Ford, D-Chicago.
The backlog “automatically does a couple things,” Ford said. “You either have someone who’s not going to get a speedy or fair trail, or you have the person committing these crimes still on the street. So when we talk about not being able to solve crimes in Chicago, sometimes these backlogs are the problem.”
Asked about the governor’s task force, Chicago Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said in an email the “we appreciate and strongly support any and all efforts that assist in making Chicago safer.”
Illinois’ ballooning DNA test backlog, though, is not unique to the state.
The national backlog of untested DNA samples has increased 85% from 2011 to 2017 despite labs processing more requests over time, according to a March report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
One problem is that scientific advancements now allow detectives to submit smaller amounts of biological evidence for testing. Laboratories have struggled to keep pace as law enforcement submits more evidence for testing, the report concludes.
Pritzker’s task force is set to publish a report by June 2020.