Recommendation of the National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence

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At the first meeting of the National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence it was requested that the Commission identify, consider, and make recommendations on issues of immediate concern. Pursuant to that request, the Commission has identified three related limitations which inhibit the full and effective use of DNA technology in the criminal justice system. Those three limitations are the:

  1. Current backlog of untested convicted offender database (CODIS) samples
  2. Lack of appropriate prioritization of database sample collection and testing
  3. Limited use of DNA in non-suspect cases.

While the potential of the database system for solving and preventing crime is clear, these three limitations prevent the benefits of DNA technology from being realized in the criminal justice system. An effective convicted offender database not only solves crimes and prevents future crimes but also protects innocent people who may be implicated, stigmatized, investigated, and possibly wrongfully convicted.

Because the database system in the United States has developed at local, State, and national levels, different jurisdictions currently face different problems. For example, some states have effective systems for the collection of database samples but have collected samples more quickly than they can analyze. As a result, significant backlogs of collected samples are created. Other states have not yet developed a sample collection system and as such have a backlog of samples not yet collected but “owed” to their database. Many states are not able to prioritize the analysis of their collected samples by release date. Therefore, in many instances, defendants are placed on parole for years before their DNA sample is analyzed and put into CODIS, rendering the database ineffective if they re-offend.

Significant resources for DNA education and analysis need to be allocated to law enforcement agencies throughout the country if they are to take full advantage of the investigative power of the CODIS database. Limited training budgets in most departments prevent the needed training for the identification, collection, and preservation of DNA evidence at the crime scene. Moreover, most departments do not have crime scene evidence tested for DNA unless a suspect has been identified. Tens of thousands of rape kits and other evidence across the country remain untested because there is no suspect. The database is designed for just this investigative purpose but cannot be used by law enforcement due to limited funding for testing and limited education about the power of CODIS.

Recommendation

The Commission recommends the expeditious analysis and input of untested backlogged samples into the CODIS database system, the effective prioritization of offender samples and the encouragement and facilitation of the use of DNA in non-suspect cases. Grants should be established that facilitate the reduction of both collected and uncollected database samples, that encourage the development of effective systems for the collection of those samples, and that provide law enforcement agencies with direction and guidance to effectively use DNA in non-suspect cases. An Advisory Committee should be established that would set criteria and methods for accomplishing these goals. These grants should be administered with the goal of maximizing the effect of the database system while preventing future database backlogs.

Background

The backlog of CODIS offender samples:

The success of CODIS is directly related to the number of convicted offender DNA profiles entered into the database. While the system currently contains approximately 260,000 offender “RFLP” profiles, approximately 450,000 offender samples remain stored in individual State forensic laboratories, approximately 500,000 still need to be collected and analyzed. Moreover, the existing database of 260,000 currently in the system need to be converted from RFLP to STR DNA markers.

Obtaining STR DNA profiles from the approximately 450,000 convicted felon samples stored in forensic laboratories nationwide for the purpose of CODIS entry is an immediate need and an attainable goal. All CODIS laboratories with stored convicted offender samples should be eligible to request funding to relieve their database sample backlog providing that:

  1. At a minimum, all CODIS laboratories and private vendors must be in compliance with the DNA Advisory Board (DAB) "Quality Assurance Standards for Convicted Offender DNA Data-basing Standards."
  2. All 13 CODIS core STR markers must be analyzed.
  3. Privacy issues concerning sample use and storage be appropriately addressed in laboratories using outsourcing to analyze samples.
  4. Sample analysis be expedited such that the current backlog of collected and RFLP-analyzed samples is eliminated within 18 months once funding is secured.

The Commission has determined that outsourcing those samples to private laboratories capable of high throughput testing may be the only means of achieving all four of the above-listed criteria for the majority of State and local public laboratories. Further, the Commission estimates that outsourcing these samples to private laboratories, at an estimated cost of $50 per sample, will result in significant cost savings through economies of scale. However, the Commission recognizes that some States may effectively reduce their backlog in-house. For States capable of in-house backlog reduction using their per sample share of allocated monies, the Commission encourages that application of funds.

Prioritization of database sample collection and analysis:

The appropriate prioritization of database sample collection and analysis is essential to maximize the effect of the DNA database for law enforcement. The Commission has determined that procedures and time tables for the collection and testing of database samples vary greatly across the country. While some states effectively prioritize the collection and testing of samples by release date, many states do not maintain a system that ensures the input of offender profiles into the system prior to release. In jurisdictions that lack effective sample collection and testing prioritization the database can be rendered ineffective.

If resources are first allocated to analyze samples of individuals with long prison sentences and little chance of imminent release rather than individuals on probation and parole or soon to be released, the database is rendered useless if that person re-offends and his sample has not been analyzed and entered into the system. Ensuring that the DNA profiles of offenders are entered into CODIS prior to release makes it more likely that the database will be effective at quickly identifying the perpetrator if that individual re-offends.

The use of DNA in non-suspect cases:

It is in the application of DNA technology to crime scene investigation that the unrealized potential of DNA is most evident. The Commission has determined that a vast number of law enforcement officers throughout the country lack the education and resources to use the database system effectively. Many departments continue a policy that requires the identification of a suspect before approval for DNA analysis is granted. While that policy was appropriate prior to the advent of CODIS, the database system makes that policy illogical. If the criminal justice system is to truly realize the advantages of the database, it should be effectively accessed in the investigative stage. That requires that law enforcement be educated about the database and given the appropriate resources to have DNA testing performed in non-suspect cases.

Pilot programs which encourage the use of DNA and the database system by law enforcement will produce models to be studied and implemented by different police departments. Further, such pilot programs would provide research data for studies on the effectiveness of the database, economic benefits, and how the technology effects the investigative process. Most importantly, those programs will encourage the expeditious apprehension of suspects, the protection of future victims, and the protection of innocent suspects.

Date Created: November 13, 2007