In 2002, I was living in London, England, when a scandal hit the front page of every major newspaper. It was a problem so significant and a scenario so unacceptable that the British Home Office called for immediate action and remediation. The scandal? Apparently, DNA analysis in the UK sometimes took as long as a month to turn around once a crime was committed. It was truly shocking and scandalous that the forensic technology universally recognized as the most effective crime fighting tool available to law enforcement was not being utilized to its fullest. To the British government and to the British people, the only acceptable course of action was a mandate to the Forensic Science Service that DNA cases be turned around within 7 to 14 days – or else.
Anyone even remotely connected to the forensic DNA community in the United States can only marvel at the idea that a 30-day turnaround time for forensic DNA would be considered scandalous. Given the offender and crime scene sample backlogs at the local, state, and federal level, 30-day turnaround time seems like lightning speed to the vast majority of criminal justice systems in the U.S.
Unfortunately, the U.S. is facing a scenario worse than simply failing to maximize the potential of forensic DNA. After five years of steady progress towards realizing the true investigative value of DNA technology by eliminating the backlog of samples and populating the DNA database with crucial data, the U.S. forensic community is poised to take a giant leap backwards. The Debbie Smith Act, an initiative responsible for infusing the forensic community with more than $500 million over the last five years, will come to an end in 2008. In other words, the large infusion of funding primarily responsible for addressing the massive backlogs existing at the state and local level will stop completely.
In 2001, the Debbie Smith Act was introduced to provide funding to state and local crime laboratories for backlogged DNA cases. Debbie Smith, a rape survivor whose crime was solved through the DNA database, worked closely with Congress to see this bill enacted as part of the Justice For All Act of 2004 (PL 108-408). The Debbie Smith Act grants authorize $151 million per year through FY 2009 to reduce the DNA backlog at crime laboratories.
Historically, these grants have never received the full amount authorized by Congress in the Justice for All Act. In fiscal years 2004-2006, the DNA grants were supported at their full funding levels by both the Bush Administration and the House of Representatives but the Senate consistently reduced funding to roughly $100 million. For FY 2007, the Senate finally agreed to fund the President’s request for DNA at $151 million, but the Continuing Resolution reduced the funding once again. The money that has ultimately been allocated, however, has had a significant impact solving crime and the protecting victims and innocent suspects.
The Federal DNA backlog grants have made critical contributions to public safety by allowing state and local laboratories to analyze DNA casework and offender samples for inclusion on the DNA database. Nearly 48,000 investigations have been aided nationwide thanks to DNA matches, or “hits,” on CODIS (the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System).