9 of 10 on Backlogs: the danger of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing

Will it cost a lot to rid ourselves of backlogs?

The first response to that question must be, compared to what?

Backlogs are widespread and costly — much more costly the longer we ignore them.  When ignored, law enforcement investigations largely rely on methods that are only slightly updated from those used in the 19th century (or before). If labs make them wait, members of law enforcement become understandably frustrated if not cynical about the value of submitting evidence to them.  Courts slow down waiting for lab results, suspects are held longer awaiting trial, and sometimes wrongly held while waiting for the lab’s work to exonerate them.  Think of the cost to the families who wait for death certificates, unable to do anything with the deceased’s assets, or to obtain insurance payments.  Of the business owner in an area where a string of burglaries are being committed — by someone who might have been identified after the first break-in.

As previously discussed, violence is expensive.  A study published in the June 2007 issue of Journal of Preventative Medicine found that violence costs the U.S. at least $70 billion annually, a figure, Science Daily pointed out, “that rivals federal education spending and the damage caused by hurricane Katrina.”  The figure is most likely higher, because many of those injured by domestic violence do not report their injuries, or will claim the injuries were caused by accidents.

A billion is often difficult to imagine — in American English, it’s 1000 million.  

Forensic science labs don’t just work on evidence from violent crimes, of course.

A 1999 study in the University of Chicago’s Journal of Law and Economics pegged the annual cost of all crime at $1.7 trillion, about $2.4 trillion in 2012 dollars.  (A trillion is 1,000,000 millions.) When the author of the study, Professor David A. Davidson, produced a new study in 2012, he found that “[The] annual cost of crime in the United States for one year is now about $3.2 trillion dollars, which is roughly the combined cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq from 2001 to 2011.”  

Davidson’s numbers are higher than those in some other reports, in part because of his approach — while other studies look at the cost of treating wounds, property losses, and loss of productivity, he believes those studies overlook costs such as locks, security cameras, and other costs incurred because we are fearful of crime and do not live in a crime-free society.  

These also include the loss of value in real estate in areas where crime rates are higher, the costs of commuting to suburbs, and other costs we may not always think of, but if you try to imagine being free of all crime, you begin to be able to see all the ways in which we compensate for it in our daily lives.  Think of any time you decided not to go somewhere or to do something because of a fear of crime — it has drawn a line around you.

Whatever number you place on the cost of crime, it grows more expensive if ignored.  Dealing with backlogs won’t end all crime, but processing evidence in a timely manner is essential to efficient investigation of crimes, identification of the guilty, exoneration of the innocent, and other aspects of a healthy system of justice.  View our list of some of the ways in which forensic science affects our lives to get a sense of the implications of not giving public forensic science the resources it needs.

No one is asking for a blank check, and money is by no means the entire answer to backlog problems.  There are things labs, law enforcement, and legislatures must do to ensure funds for forensic science are spent wisely.


8 of 10 on Backlogs: Rape Kits, part 4

We’ve tried to touch on some of the complexities and questions involved in this issue, which sometimes are similar to those of all backlogs, and sometimes are unique to sexual assault.  A few of these complexities and questions are (in no particular order re their importance):

1) Lack of definition of terms:  When is a case backlogged? Why is there apparently so little will among forensic science professionals, especially within the lab management community, to agree upon definitions of these terms?

2) Where is the backlog — in police storage or in the lab’s workload?  If in a lab’s workload, is this a legacy backlog, a chronic condition, a temporary problem?  What resources and practices are needed to eliminate backlogs?

3) If in police storage, why is this potential evidence being withheld from testing? Is there a system in place for managing and tracking evidence? A system for identifying kits attached to cases that are dropped, plead, or otherwise already resolved? What policies are in place regarding this decision-making process? What training is provided regarding sexual assault investigation and evidence?

4) Where can we find the resources to pay for testing?

5) What factors led to the backlog?

6) What policies, practices, and resources can be put into place to prevent future backlogs?

7) What polices and practices will ensure the highest likelihood of obtaining and preserving useful evidence from sexual assault kits?

8) Are some groups of victims more likely than others to be dissuaded from filing charges, more likely to be disbelieved, or otherwise more likely to have their kits set aside?

9) How can law enforcement and the public be better educated about sexual assault, evidence, backlogs, and forensic science realities so that additional resources can be made available and used wisely?

10) How do we balance maintaining the credibility of the justice system, fulfilling our obligations as a society to any victim of violence, and practicing fiscal responsibility in the use of finite lab resources?

11) What role do statutes of limitation play in backlogs and testing of sexual assault evidence?  Is there a need to change or eliminate statutes of limitation on all or some types of sexual assault?

12) Are there things we can learn from large-scale backlog eliminations about working with private labs and the returning workload when tests are completed?  What needs to change?

13) What about the “aftermath” of testing sexual assault kits? Do we have the investigative and other resources needed to pursue prosecutions? Have we changed the likelihood of conviction? Are we also backlogged in submissions to databases, state and national? What can we learn?

14) Is there value, whatever the prosecutorial outcome, in letting victims know that if they go through the process required for a sexual assault kit, that kit will be evaluated by the lab and tested if it is believed it will yield evidence? What message do we send if we don’t offer this assurance?

These are by no means all the questions and complexities involved.

7 of 10 on Backlogs: Rape Kits, part 3

Los Angeles County was not the only place where rape kit backlogs were brought to the attention of the public.

We previously mentioned the Detroit backlog of over 11,300 kits in police storage facility. When the city had processed the few hundred it could afford to test, the State of Michigan agreed to fund the testing of the rest.  That testing is still in progress.

Houston, Texas spent $4.4 million in federal and city funding to send its backlog of 6,600 sexual assault kits to an outside lab.  Testing should be completed early next year.  Additional funds have been secured for the testing of 20,000+ rape kits statewide.

Ohio is also in the process of tackling a rape kit backlog. “Over the past several years,” the Cleveland Plain Dealer says, “[the newspaper's] reporters have raised questions about the thousands of untested rape kits in police evidence rooms across the state and the country.

“Cleveland police began counting their untested rape kits in 2009 and later began sending them in batches for testing.

“In 2011, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine stepped up testing efforts by asking all departments to send kits to state labs.”

In 2009, Cleveland expected their evidence to amount to about 3,000 rape kits.  Since starting the process, they have tallied more than 6,180 kits “and pieces of evidence from sexual assaults going back as many as 17 years.” Since the statute of limitations is 20 years, there is urgency regarding bringing indictments in older cases.  The first indictment out of the 2011 statewide rape kit initiative came one day too late for the 20-year limit.

The Plain Dealer also discovered that a rape kit left untested in 2009 by the Cleveland Heights Police Department might have lead to an earlier arrest of Anthony Sowell.  Sowell was convicted in 2011 of the murders of 11 women — whose bodies he left rotting in his Cleveland home on Imperial Avenue. He also committed several attacks on women who survived. In April, 2009, one of those women reported a rape and kidnapping to police, and according to the police report quoted in the Plain Dealer, “the woman showed signs of trauma, including numerous scratch marks on her neck and hands, and had areas of her scalp where hair had been ripped out during a struggle. The report also noted that the woman’s voice was raspy ‘due to strangulation.’ Most of the Imperial Avenue victims were strangled.” Five of the murder victims were killed after the rape kit was collected. After his arrest, the April, 2009 kit was tested and found to be a match to Sowell.

In July, 2011, when Sowell was convicted, CBS News reported on several missed opportunities and the changes they brought about.  Of the untested April, 2009 rape kit they noted, “The Cleveland Heights Police Department did not have a computerized system to track evidence. Cleveland Heights is not alone. According to the Department of Justice, 43 percent of police departments nationwide do not have a computerized system for tracking forensic evidence. But the department says even if they had submitted the DNA to the state there would not have been a match leading to Sowell’s arrest. That’s because of another critical mistake by another law enforcement agency.”   Sowell had previously served 15 years in prison for rape, and gave a DNA sample in 1997, but the profile seems never to have been entered into the state database.

When State Attorney General Mike DeWine launched the Ohio sexual assault kit initiative in late 2011, he announced a “guideline” encouraging all law enforcement agencies to send in any unrest rape kits to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation.  “DeWine, a former Greene County prosecutor, said that cost factors and a belief by some police agencies that it wasn’t worth having tests done on evidence if a suspect had not been identified were the main roadblocks to getting all rape kits tested.” He designed the initiative to solve those problems, and hired additional lab staff to test the kits.

A story in this week’s Marion Star says that to date, more 4,956 untested kits have been submitted to the state lab from 110 law enforcement agencies in Ohio. Testing began in 2012, and has now been completed on more than 2300 rape kits.  “766 DNA matches in a criminal database” have resulted.

The Plain Dealer has lauded the changes the initiative has brought about, and kept the spotlight on the issue of sexual assault.  In an October, 2013 editorial, it said:

The attention that the criminal justice system is finally focusing on rape sends a powerful message to survivors. The very system that marginalized them is now helping to empower them.

But more needs to be done. Only 109 law enforcement agencies have participated in the voluntary initiative — a token number, given that there are 970 such agencies statewide. Where are the rape kits from the other 861?

That lack of response presents a compelling argument for the legislature to pass a bill that mandates rape kit collection and testing.

The Plain Dealer has chronicled the story of the backlogs, the initiative and now the indictments that have resulted from testing previously neglected kits in an in depth series (now on its website) called “A Guide to Reinvestigating Rape: Old Evidence, New Answers.”  You can access it online by clicking here.

6 of 10 on Backlogs: Rape Kits, part 2

In March of 2009, Sarah Tofte, then a researcher with Human Rights Watch, announced at a well-attended press conference that more than 12,000 untested rape kits were sitting untested in law enforcement storage facilities across Los Angeles County. The Human Rights Watch report she authored, “Testing Justice: The Rape Kit Backlog in Los Angeles City and County” caused a public outcry.

A 2012 study (Sexual Assault Kit Backlog Study) about the parts of the rape kit backlog that were within the LASD and LAPD (there are other law enforcement agencies in the county) noted that by the fall of 2008, the number of untested kits were 10,895.  “They were not crime laboratory backlogs per se but were untested kits held in police property rooms in cold storage, where investigators and prosecutors had not requested that the SAK be tested. In 2009, however, the chief executives of Los Angles city and county law enforcement agencies announced that all backlogged kits would be tested, using outside private DNA testing laboratories.”

In response, commitments were made and — importantly — funding eventually produced.  This funding — at a time when the city and county were in a fiscal crisis — came from the county supervisors, federal funds, public funds. and private donors.   By October 2010 the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department had completed counting and outsourcing 5000 kits.  In April, 2011, the Los Angeles Police Department had done the same for 6132 kits, which had by then yielded 753 hits in the FBI’s national DNA database, CODIS.

Sexual Assault Kit Backlog Study noted that “Ninety- three percent of victims were female, victims averaged 22.2 years of age, and 39% were Hispanic/Latino. While female victims far outnumbered male victims by a ratio of 15 to 1, a significantly higher percentage of male victims were 13 or younger (47.6%) compared with females (16.7%). Two-thirds of victims knew their assailants, almost 35% self reported they were intoxicated with alcohol or drugs at the time of the assault, almost three-quarters (71%) reported sustaining one or more injuries, three-quarters reported vaginal penetration, and only about one-quarter thought the assailant had ejaculated. Victims also reported actions that could have compromised the scientific evidence present: a high percentage of victims (80%) reported they had engaged in post-assault hygiene, and almost half (46.4%) changed their clothing before undergoing the sexual assault examination.”

The study notes that “foreign” (i.e., not the victim’s) DNA was successfully uploaded to CODIS in 36% of the backlogged sample, and of those, 46% resulted in offender hits.  Most of the offender hits were to suspects known to the victim. It also notes that in a study of 371 samples taken from the backlogged cases, “no new arrests resulted after SAK [Sexual Assault Kit] testing occurred, but one filing and two convictions did. We determined that neither of the two new convictions involved helpful DNA testing. Almost 40% of these sampled cases had previously resulted in arrests without the benefit of a SAK analysis and 18% had resulted in convictions. For the matched sample of 371 non-backlog cases, almost the same percentage of cases had resulted in arrest, filing and conviction prior to SAK testing. After the tests, however, an additional percentage of cases resulted in arrest (2%), filing (5%), and conviction (11%). SAK testing of the present day sample was primarily associated with cases going farther into the criminal justice system, many in conviction.”

As we mentioned in this post, rape kit backlogs had been a publicly discussed topic of concern since 2002, when a study by the Police Executive Research Forum very conservatively estimated the number of backlogged rape kits nationwide to be about 180,000.  In 2004, Congress authorized the Debbie Smith Act to increase funding to eliminate backlogs.  While those 180,000 are no longer part of the backlog, increased demand for DNA testing in lab has resulted in a backlog now estimated to be over 400,000 sexual assault kits.

Tomorrow: Looking at backlogged rape kits in other parts of the country.

5 of 10 on Backlogs: Rape Kits, part 1

A key part of backlog reduction is ensuring that funds are available to forensic science labs to meet growing demands for their services. Backlogs are thought of as cost burdens and reported as numbers, numbers so large that it is easy to forget that each of those numbers represents a human being, most often a victim of violence. Those who have never been victims of violence often have difficulty imagining the ways in which it disrupts lives, having effects that are far beyond physical harm. Most of those human beings have family members who are also waiting for answers.  The tests that are waiting may also identify a criminal — someone who may be on the loose, free to commit other crimes against other victims.

The effects of violence are not without a dollar cost, of course.  The Tennessee Economic Council on Women recently released a report that puts “the cost of domestic and sexual violence and human sex trafficking targeting women at $866 million each year, paid for largely through tax dollars, healthcare premiums, charity and lost productivity in fields like law enforcement, medical care, social services, and private enterprise. What this tells us is that domestic and sexual violence, while they may occur behind closed doors, affect everyone.”  That is just the cost in one state.

The cost of domestic violence, according to a 12/5/13 article in Forbes, is $8.3 billion annually, “a combination of higher medical costs ($5.8 billion) and lost productivity ($2.5 billion).”

Rape kit backlogs are currently estimated to be upward of 400,000 kits.  One obstacle in getting a count is that they aren’t all in labs — as previously mentioned, sometimes they are held by law enforcement agencies and not submitted to labs.  Worse, not all agencies that have them have any method of tracking them.  Others seem to have made little effort to do so.

In 2009, Rob Spada, an assistant prosecutor, was taking a tour of the downtown Detroit police storage warehouse.

“I saw numerous racks with cardboard boxes,” Spada told NBC’s Rock Center last June, “and they told me at that point those were rape kits. I immediately asked the representatives were they tested rape kits or untested rape kits. And at that point they said, ‘We don’t know.'”

More than 11,303 kits were found.  D.A. Kym Worthy, in whose office Spada then worked, has become a champion of getting the kits tested.

As of last June, 569 kits had been tested and yielded 136 CODIS hits.  Thirty-two of them have been identified as serial rapists.

Imagine how their later victims must feel, knowing their rapist might have been prosecuted years before they were attacked.

The State of Michigan has pledged funding to test the remaining 10,000+ kits.

When you see those numbers, try to imagine a place in which 11,303 human beings are gathered. They have faces.  They have families, workplaces, friends — lives.  Now imagine a bigger room — much bigger — with 400,000 people in it.  They are 400,000 individuals who had the courage to go through the process of reporting a humiliating, terrifying, violent assault.  Let’s stop sending a message to them that we don’t care. Let’s honor that courage.

More on rape kit backlogs in our next post.

If you don’t want to wait until then — you can find an easy way to ask Congress to take action on the RAINN Website.  Click here.

4 of 10 on Backlogs: Where are backlogs causing problems?

All over the U.S., as we know from stories about the rape kit backlog.  But backlogs aren’t only in DNA processing, and affect us in countless ways.  Here is a sampling of stories reported since November 1, 2013:

In North Carolina, they are making roads more dangerous. One lab does all the blood-alcohol analysis for the state. “I think the last time they looked at it there were 13,000 cases statewide that were in the lab in some stage of the process,” said local MADD Representative Ellen Pitt. “We have people who are dying and being injured because of whatever is wrong in our system.” See this report from WLOS for more info.

The Charlotte Observer reported that in North Carolina’s medical examiner system, heavy autopsy caseloads raise the risk of mistakes.

In Connecticut, WFSB has been reporting for two years on the heartache caused by backlogs in the medical examiner’s office in Farmington.

In Tennessee, WMC reported that “Clearing the 12,113 unprocessed rape kits in the Memphis Police Department’s possession will cost more than $4.6 million dollars.”

CBS in Chicago reports major backlogs in several areas of testing at the Illinois State Crime lab.  A firearms examination backlog left the family of a young man shot to death waiting  a year for results.  While the girl lives in terror and her rapist is free, the 15-year-old’s family has been told her rape kit may be not processed for another four months.  “Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Timothy Evans warns there could be a ripple effect” of problems finding witnesses after long delays, new crimes committed, and in degraded evidence. He cites 9000 cases backlogged for Cook County cases alone. “The 2-Investigators obtained crime lab records and found, for this year as of July, it is taking an average of 238 days to complete Firearm/Toolmark testing. Rape kits are averaging 281 days to be tested, with 3,378 backlogged.”

The Fort Worth, Texas crime lab has sought funding for outsourcing to deal with its backlog, according to this WFAA report.

Also in Texas, CBS Dallas/Fort Worth reports that a new crime lab is being built by the Denton County Sheriff’s Office on the University of North Texas campus. “Currently all work for Denton County is done by the Texas Department of Public Safety’s lab in Garland. The location also has a major backlog. Sheriff Travis said there are thousands of drug cases still open, because they are waiting on test results. “’Right now they are overworked and understaffed.'”

In Louisiana, the Acadiana Criminalistics Laboratory in the Baton Rouge area has been making headway in reducing backlogs, the Advocate newspaper reports, but without increased funding, faces an uncertain future.

In another part of Louisiana, the Shreveport Times reported on the groundbreaking for a new lab that will serve 29 parishes.  The lab is currently housed in a building built in 1929, and due to its limitations, “the crime lab has a backlog of more than 800 unworked cases needing DNA and firearms analysis.” All of the parishes it serves have to send “evidence out of state to be processed.”  

In Ohio, ABC’s Cleveland affiliate, News 5, reported that the police chief recently appeared before the Public Safety Committee of Cleveland City Council “to explain how thousands of rape kits containing DNA evidence went untested for years.”

We’ll be talking more about Ohio‘s SAK Testing Initiative, but it is worth noting, as the Pike County Daily reported, that 4,956 previously untested rape kits have been turned into the state’s crime lab as of 12/2/2013.

In Missouri, KMOV was told that “because of a backlog at the state crime lab, it’ll likely be months before the suspects [in a major drug bust] get in front of a judge.”

Missouri’s KOLR news looked at DNA backlogs and their effect on investigations of rape and murder cases.  “Director of the Missouri Highway Patrol’s Crime Lab Bill Marbaker says the lab’s case load has grown exponentially. In 2004 the patrol’s lab analyzed just more than 700 pieces of DNA evidence.  In 2012 that grew to 38,000 pieces.”

According to an interview with Norwich University Professor Peter Stephenson by Vermont Public Radio, the “current backlog for digital forensic cases in Vermont is about two years…”

In West Virginia, the Register-Herald reported that “the State Police digital forensics lab at Marshall University in Huntington has two civilian analysts and a six-month backlog of cases. A similar lab in Morgantown has one civilian analyst and a 14-month backlog.”

In Virginia, when the WRIC investigative team tried to discover how many rape kits were sitting on shelves in local police departments, they ran into an unexpected problem. “What is perhaps most shocking is that despite the abundance of databases and spreadsheets that can easily keep record of important information, the Henrico County Police Division has no idea how many kits are sitting in its evidence room.”

In Michigan, when WWMT reported on the cold case investigation of a child’s murder six years ago, they noted that “Last year [police] sent evidence samples to a crime lab in Grand Rapids for analysis. They tell us it has taken a long time to get results due to a backlog.”

Also in Michigan, in a suburb near Grand Rapids, the Alpena News reports that “the Wyoming City Council approved spending $100,000 on lab equipment after its police department complained that it took too long for results to come back from the state police crime lab.” [The MSP lab has since responded that its statewide average turnaround time for blood alcohol tests is the lowest it has been in more than 15 years.]

In California, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that “hundreds of grieving families have been forced to wait several months – and, in many cases, more than a year – to obtain a death certificate with a cause of death from the shorthanded medical examiner’s office.”

In Pennsylvania, WPIX looked at DNA testing delays in the state lab.

If your state is not included in any of the articles above, remember that this is just a sampling of articles published in about one month — don’t assume that means there are no backlogs in your nearby labs and death investigation offices.  It is far more likely that some form of backlog exists there than not.  And if a criminal commits an act in one place where there are backlogs and crosses jurisdictional lines into another where there are not, not having backlogs does not ensure the safety of those near his new residence.

In an ideal world, we would wait no longer for results than it took to run a test, confirm its results, and complete a report — police would be better able to use forensic science to solve crimes, rather than (as often happens now) hoping it confirms investigative work done by methods largely the same as those used in the 19th century.  We are far from that ideal world, but we should not resign ourselves to the belief that it is unobtainable.