September 11, 2011

New Federal Report on DNA Evidence Backlog

The problem of a backlog in the processing of DNA samples for forensic analysis in law enforcement has been noted for quite a while; the reports of backlogs in the processing of rape kits are at least a decade old. Therefore, the issue has received attention not only from law enforcement, but also from those seeking to reduce violence against women. More generally, delays in processing DNA evidence can occur with samples taken from individuals in the criminal justice system whose profiles will be catalogued, or it can arise from the failure to process the crime scene evidence (rape kits) that are collected from victims. The lack of processing has unequivocally delayed the possibility of identifying perpetrators at an early stage in a criminal career, before committing a series of crimes which are only connected when DNA evidence reveals the pattern of conduct. Notable documentary work has been done by Human Rights Watch, framing violence against women as a human rights issue, and advocating for vigorous attention to the processing of available evidence in order to prosecute such crimes; a recent success story was L.A.'s efforts to eliminate their backlog of rape kits through 2008. Here is a recent commentary by former Manhattan DA Linda Fairstein, who headed the office's Sex Crimes Unit for several decades, in which she notes not only that evidence backlogs delay justice for crime victims, but that exoneration of an innocent individual is another dividend of such work. Now comes a report from the Department of Justice that the federal backlog of over 300,000 DNA samples from offenders and arrestees has been processed and the forensic profiles entered into the CODIS database. The backlogs in rape kit processing remain, even in 2011; California is legislating, even now, in an attempt to speed up processing; this bill would require that all rape kits are tested when the arrest rate for forcible rape drops below a certain percentage. Less than an ideal solution, in its conditional approach; on the other hand, indifference on the part of law enforcement should be expected to show up in arrest rates, and therefore such a numerical trigger is likely to identify pockets of inattention to the prosecution of rape cases.

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