The DNA testing community must rethink its conventional mindset and reexamine traditional DNA analysis procedures.
Forensic DNA technology has the power to revolutionize crime fighting and justice. As such it has become an invaluable tool. But, accessibility to forensic DNA testing technology is currently limited. In the United States, inefficiencies in existing DNA testing laboratory facilities have caused crippling backlogs. Controversy exists as to how backlogs are currently defined, but regardless of $330,178,522 in federal grant spending from 2004 to 2009, backlogs are worsening. 1,2,3,4,5 Backlogs make accessibility so untimely in some communities, that it seems virtually non-existent. Victims cannot get justice for themselves and communities cannot prevent crimes against others who would cross paths with repeating offenders left on the streets far too long. 6,7,8 The accused lose their 6th amendment rights.The falsely accused cannot be exonerated.9 Cold-cases or non-violent “low-priority” crimes languish.Only the cases with impending court dates get the benefit of testing under backlog conditions. Outside and inside the U.S.,many communities have burgeoning forensic DNA testing needs but small budgets. These communities are told and convinced that they cannot afford the costs of building and sustaining the personnel and technology that could give them their own DNA testing facilities. These communities feel forced to go without access to DNA testing, pay exorbitant rates for outsourcing, or burden larger agencies with their casework.And in recent months, even large agencies like the Forensic Science Service in England are not safe from closure due to sustainability issues. 10,11
The NIJ recently reported that DNA backlogs will exist until the capacity of the nation’s crime laboratories to test cases surpasses the demand for testing,1 in other words, a supply and demand problem. A basic supply and demand approach leads to the assumption that throwing more personnel at the problem will solve it, and this is what a 2008 NIJ published survey implied.12 But, personnel are the single-most expensive component of forensic DNA testing. In 2006, the Office of State Budget and Management for North Carolina performed a cost study of forensic DNA testing.They determined that in their 2005–2006 operating budget of $2,699,038 that $2,328,650 was spent on personnel and fringe benefits.13 The number of personnel employed by a laboratory must be affordable without outside assistance or forensic DNA testing expenses rapidly become unsustainable. The backlogs we are currently seeing are as much a symptom of unsustainable laboratory practices as they are of a lack of capacity. The solution is that laboratories must increase their single-analyst capacity, i.e. they must be able to do more with the personnel they have. Another solution is that new affordable no-frills laboratories could be built according to demand in amore decentralized way so that communities can meet their own DNA casework demands. The technology already exists to increase single-analyst capacity in every lab by at least four-fold and to build entirely affordable DNA testing facilities anywhere, but it requires laboratory management that has the flexibility and courage to make a clean break with tradition.
The Status Quo
In order to understand the three areas where improvements in traditional DNA testing can be made by laboratories, it is important to understand the way a DNA case is traditionally processed.When a case comes through the door of a forensic DNA testing lab, it is traditionally subjected to serological testing first.This is where analysts personally search by hand for bodily fluid stains that have inherent probative value, like blood, semen, and saliva. Blood indicates trauma, semen and seminal fluid indicate male ejaculation, and saliva indicates mouth contact, and all of these fluids contain a reliable amount of cellular material where DNA is located. In these cases serological results predict successful DNA results and probative DNA results.