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(Photo: Courtesy of the Houston Forensic Science Center)

For the next 10 months, the Houston Forensic Science Center will outsource most of its DNA work to a private laboratory to play catch-up with a backlog of evidence.

Half of the $2 million project will be covered by federal grants—and the laboratory will still handle priority and urgent cases as it prepares to increase capacity for the future, according to the HFSC.

The new venture is a way to dig out of a backlog of nearly 1,000 requests, said officials.

“In this case, an investment on the front end will alleviate backlogs going forward,” said Peter Stout, HFSC CEO and president. “Our plan is to simultaneously eliminate a longstanding backlog while building a sustainable, efficient process that allows for an average 30-day turnaround time on DNA work.”

The private laboratory has yet to be determined, with a request for proposal still pending, according to officials.

The forensic biology/DNA section of the HFSC currently has about 950 requests that are more than 30 days old. Some 200 of the pieces of evidence are sexual-assault kits; while the testing on those kits has been completed, the data analysis remains outstanding.

For 10 months, the private laboratory will handle most of the day-to-day DNA work. In the meantime, the staff will be cross-trained so they are all able to perform all three steps in the lab’s analytical process. Currently, each staff member is only trained to do a single one of those steps.

The remaining staff members who are already authorized to perform all the work will focus on the 950 cases, they added. For almost all those cases, the final step remains: data analysis, they added.

Since its inception in 2014, the HFSC has made multiple inroads to eliminating a legacy of backlogs in one the largest American cities. In 2015, the HFSC announced it had completed testing on a backlog of 6,600 rape kits. Last year, officials told Forensic Magazine a digital-evidence backlog had been tested. The HFSC had also streamlined the fingerprints analysis by cutting unnecessary comparisons, in an effort to speed production among the experts in that division.

The American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors said that the HFSC is in good company. Most laboratories are currently overwhelmed by the sheer volume of DNA evidence coming in their doors, they told Forensic Magazine.

Matthew Gamette, the ASCLD president, cited the example of the Oregon State Police, who have temporarily stopped testing for property crimes as they attempt to test all their rape kits.

It’s a matter of hiring and training personnel, Gamette told Forensic Magazine. Most labs are currently updating their DNA methods and instrumentation—but the backlogs are still looming on the evidence shelves, he said. Gamette will provide congressional testimony next week on the importance of funding to crime laboratories—and the ASCLD is working on an operational needs assessment, which is expected in October.

Overall, the key is to getting more hands on deck, Gamette added.

“Most laboratories in the country are overwhelmed with incoming DNA case submissions from sexual assaults, assaults, homicides and other crimes,” he said. “It really is a resource issue for laboratories. It takes time to increase laboratory capacity. Only so much can be done with instrumentation, methods, lean six-sigma projects and other initiatives. Ultimately what is needed to increase capacity is personnel.”

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