December 10 in 10: Ten Posts About Backlogs in Ten Days

It has been awhile since we’ve done a “ten facts in ten days” round of posts, so we’re going to do a set on the topic that led to the establishment of the Crime Lab Project: backlogs.

10 in 10: Backlogs 1 – Let me Count the Ways

This happens to crime victims and their families all too often:  there is evidence available.  Hopes rise, as they expect that an answer will come back to them from the lab within hours.  That’s what they’ve seen on TV.  And then they learn that it won’t be hours, days or even weeks before the evidence is processed.  Months, and in some cases, a year or more.  Why?  Backlogs.  The lab is overwhelmed with service requests, and theirs will have to wait.  May even be pushed back if something higher profile or “more serious” comes along.

We hear it often, but “backlog” is on a list of ill-defined terms used by those in and around forensic science.  (“Medical examiner” and “coroner” are a couple of others.) Differences in usage of this term continue between agencies and organizations talking about backlogs, to an extent that makes it difficult to know what we are talking about in any discussion of them.  Agreeing upon a definition might be an excellent first step in ending them.

For some, any case waiting to be tested is backlogged.  For some labs, the delay isn’t only in cases, but in samples legislation requires them to process. (Very often, this legislation is not accompanied by the funding needed to accomplish the task.)  These would include DNA samples from convicted felons, fingerprints from arrestees to be uploaded to IAFIS, fingerprints taken for background checks on day care workers, and whatever other tests, forensic processes, or samples a jurisdiction may require.

Some cases require multiple types of tests, or have many more pieces of evidence to be processed, and this further complicates matters. Some evidence is not submitted to labs — is it backlogged if the lab hasn’t received it?

For others, any case that has been submitted for testing and has waited more than 30 days for testing is backlogged. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (part of the U.S. Department of Justice) has used a similar definition in its studies: “A request that has been submitted to a crime lab, but has not yet been examined and reported to the submitting agency within 30 days.”

Still others won’t assign that term for tests held under 90 days, others, 180 days.

As a National Institute of Justice report noted in 2011, “There is no industrywide agreement about what constitutes a backlog; NIJ defines a backlogged case as one that has not been tested 30 days after submission to the crime laboratory. Many crime laboratories, however, consider a case backlogged if the final report has not been provided to the agency that submitted the case. Which definition one uses naturally affects the count of cases backlogged.”

(To read the full NIJ report, click here for a PDF download.)

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