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.


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