After pressure to clear languishing DNA evidence like rape kits, Illinois reduces backlog by 31%

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A rape kit in the emergency department at Mount Sinai Hospital in December 2019. - Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS

CHICAGO — After years of pressure to clear a large backlog of DNA evidence awaiting analysis, state officials have reduced it by 31%.

According to the most recent data from the Illinois State Police, which runs state laboratories that process evidence from crime scenes, as of July 31, 5,811 assignments were waiting to be processed in the biology section, which includes DNA evidence. At the same time last year, 8,403 such assignments awaited analysis.

Still, this is a hefty amount of DNA evidence in a backlog many say should be much smaller. But it shows that improvements taken to streamline analysis are working, said Brenda Danosky, biology program manager at Illinois State Police Forensic Sciences Command.

“This was exciting,” she said, “to see those numbers.”

Key to reducing the backlog have been a new computer system, using robots to extract DNA and outsourcing cases to be processed elsewhere.

Danosky said they also are working to reduce turnaround times. In March, the average processing time for DNA evidence was 247 days; as of the agency’s August data, the average turnaround time was 210 days.

“We’re always looking at pursuing various avenues to reduce our backlog,” she said, while noting, “we never want quality to suffer in any way, shape or form, for completing our cases.”

A robot used at the three largest labs, which are in Chicago, Joliet and Springfield, now assists by extracting DNA. Forensic scientists still do the work of finding, for example, a bloodstain, but the robot can extract DNA from it. Scientists then evaluate the data.

“This is more of a tool that helps work more samples, because a forensic scientist only has so many hands,” Danosky said.

COVID-19 has shifted some of their schedules, she said, and some employees now work remotely. But forensic scientists are coming in and working socially distant from each other to process evidence.

Throughout the past few years, state Sen. Patricia Van Pelt, D-Chicago, has convened hearings on the backlog, urging officials to clear it and inviting families to speak about lingering grief as they wait. Van Pelt noted “great progress” but said the decrease must continue.

“Every kit unsolved represents one family awaiting justice,” she said.

For decades, Illinois has had a large backlog of cases awaiting analysis. Prosecutors say such delays add trauma as victims wait for justice. This can also imperil prosecutions as memories fade or people simply want to move on. As the Illinois State Police noted in a report relaying statistics, it also means criminals remain on the street.

“High backlogs equate to an increased risk to public safety, as criminals remain unidentified and able to commit additional crimes, and innocent individuals remain incarcerated as they await forensic results, which could clear them,” the report noted.

The Tribune has talked to sexual assault survivors who had been waiting more than a year for rape kit evidence to be analyzed. Carrie Ward, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said she was pleased to see the reduction.

“We know every kit processed marks another step in a rape survivor’s journey to healing,” she said.

Officials who have testified to the state Senate in recent years explain challenges like a lack of staffing, a system where certain cases can gain priority and more funding needed for equipment, salaries and outsourcing.

Analyzing evidence is more complex than what people see on shows like “NCIS,” Danosky said. For example, one case might have multiple assignments to analyze, and scientists sometimes return to evidence multiple times as they help law enforcement with a case.

The state police report notes the agency needs 90 scientists analyzing DNA evidence, but now has 61, compared with 63 last year. It can take up to nine months to hire someone who analyzes DNA evidence and up to two years to train. And even after training, some leave; out of five forensic scientists who began training in 2018, two have resigned.

Meanwhile, lack of staffing in other jobs means scientists are sometimes performing clerical duties such as answering phones instead of analyzing cases.

Last year, Gov. J.B. Pritzker established a Forensic Science Task Force, which has met during the pandemic and issued a report in July with suggestions like improving communication between labs and courts, and exploring ways to have forensic scientists provide remote testimony, allowing them more time in the lab and less commuting and sitting in courtrooms.

The state police report noted that if its budget is reduced, cases may go unworked. Donasky said this is why the state police pursues grants, which can offset budget reductions and help with costs like outsourcing and equipment.

She said she is confident the trend will stay in the right direction.

“I absolutely feel we will continue to improve, and continue to reduce the backlog,” she said.

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