DNA and the National Institute of Justice (Page 2/3)

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Over the last few years NIJ has funded a number of projects around the country to improve crime lab efficiency and reduce DNA backlogs. Are there any projects that particularly stick out in your mind because of their innovations or successes?

I would point out two projects from the NIJ efficiency program that were both real successes.

The first is the Lean Six Sigma Project that the Louisiana State Police Lab did in conjunction with purchase of automation, validation of new procedures and automated equipment. The lab showed a significant reduction in backlog, increased production, and reduction of turnaround time. The complete report can be retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/235190.pdf .

Another example of a successful project was from the University of North Texas which developed an expert software system to streamline the quality assessment of mitochondrial DNA sequence data in conjunction with improvements in the testing procedures. They reported savings in analysis costs and time savings by use of the software development. A new award to this grantee will help build a true expert system for actually reading the base sequence generated. The complete report can be retrieved from http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/234292.pdf

We understand that NIJ has funded a new study to find ways to help jurisdictions with large volumes of untested sexual assault kits discovered in their law enforcement agencies. Can you tell us more?

Sure. NIJ has awarded competitive research grants to examine the issue of untested evidence in sexual assaults. The awards were announced by Attorney General Eric Holder in April 2011 and went to Wayne County, Michigan, and the city of Houston, Texas.

This action research project will help determine why many sexual assault kits are not sent by police departments to the crime lab for testing. Action research is a method in which researchers engage in an active partnership with practitioner agencies to solve a problem. Teams from the two jurisdictions include criminal justice researchers and representatives from the police department, crime lab, prosecutor’s office, and community-based victim services organizations.

In Phase I, the planning phase of the project, the two jurisdictions will conduct an inventory and review of untested sexual assault kits (SAKs), which were found in police department evidence rooms and had not been previously tested by the crime laboratories. In Phase II of the project, the two jurisdictions will implement and evaluate strategies to address the multi-faceted issues surrounding untested SAKs, including how best to notify victims.

We are really excited about this solicitation here at NIJ, and I look forward to seeing the results of the study.

For more information on the problem of untested sexual assault kits, I would recommend reading a recent NIJ-published special report called The Road Ahead: Unanalyzed Evidence in Sexual Assault Cases by Nancy Ritter. You can access this report at http://nij.gov/pubs-sum/233279.htm.

On television shows, DNA reports frequently come back from the crime lab in a matter of hours. If that is true, how can their possibly be a backlog?

Well, it’s important not to believe everything you see on TV!

If there is true urgency for a sample to be analyzed, such as the possibility of a criminal striking again in the near future, then a lab could devote their resources to processing this testing in a day or two. However, no lab can afford to put forth this extreme level of effort on all cases, nor could the personnel stand up to this level of intense work. It also depends on the type and condition of the evidence and a demonstrated need for a priority analysis. Each case also has to be reviewed by another technical expert, which further adds to the time required to work each case. For example: if it’s a sample believed to be from the suspect left in the vicinity of, or on a victim, of a serious violent crime then yes, that certainly can be processed in a short amount of time as a priority case.

But, if the analysts have to methodically search through the evidence to find and extract the DNA, that can take a lot longer. It is important to keep in mind that all labs have some kind of ambient backlog, as there are hundreds of cases waiting in the queue as the analysts work to test and process their caseload. Also, due to budget realities, the levels of staff, funding, and technology can vary widely among different jurisdictions.

We had a great NIJ Journal article about the “CSI Effect” a few years ago written by Judge Donald Shelton from Michigan. The “CSI Effect” describes the perception that some criminal justice practitioners have about the effect that popular television shows, such as “C.S.I.” and “Law and Order,” have on the expectations for the use of forensic evidence in today’s jury trials.

The theory is that, because people see every case on TV dramas being solved using forensic DNA evidence, jurors today expect the use of forensic evidence and may not find a defendant guilty without such evidence being presented during trial.

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