Building Forensic Technology Capacity

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NCSL Resources on Criminal Justice

Book CoverIntroduction

Advancements in forensic science are revolutionizing America’s criminal justice system. From collection of evidence at crime scenes to presentation of analyzed results in courtrooms, forensic technology has improved the quality and accuracy of criminal investigations. Forensic techniques include latent fingerprint examination, controlled substance identification and DNA analysis. Investigators who use these tools to evaluate evidence can solve cases that otherwise would have remained mysteries.

The success of forensic analysis has prompted lawmakers to expand existing state policies. Examples of emerging forensic applications include expansion of DNA databases, dynamic property crimes investigation and creation of cold case units.

Forensics’ potential benefits for the criminal justice system currently are hampered by practical concerns about lab capacity, insufficient funding and a scarcity of appropriately trained personnel. According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), 2.7 million cases sent evidence through America’s forensic labs in 2005.  At year end, a backlog of 359,000 samples existed.  A sample is backlogged if it has not been completed within 30 days of receipt.  DOJ data suggests that the problem is worsening; average backlogged requests nationwide increased from 86 to 152 between 2004 and 2005.

Two main components are at the heart of the backlog issue for crime laboratories. The first, casework sample backlog, consists of samples collected from crime scenes, victims and suspects in criminal cases. Backlogged casework samples delay analysis for all kinds of forensic evidence.  In 2005, controlled substance identification accounted for 51 percent of all laboratory backlogs; DNA samples were 9 percent. Latent fingerprint examination, firearm and tool mark examination, toxicology analysis, and biology screenings also account for significant portions of the backlogged requests.

The second major source of backlog results from under-funded efforts to expand DNA databases. According to the National Institute of Justice, the convicted offender backlog includes as many as 300,000 unanalyzed DNA samples, with more than 500,000 samples yet to be taken. The convicted offender backlog consists of samples from those arrested and incarcerated for qualifying crimes. As the number of DNA samples submitted has increased, the ability of crime labs to analyze those samples has not kept pace.  Backlogs of forensic samples increase when labs are unable to meet the demand created by expansive policies for forensic testing. Supplemental funding from sources such as the National Institute of Justice has helped many states reduce—and, in Vermont, eliminate—backlog. As forensic collection policies continue to expand, it is important for state legislatures to become active partners in the intergovernmental effort to provide adequate funding for the effective application of forensic science in criminal justice.