Illinois State Police announces 48% reduction in DNA/Biology backlog

State News

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WMBD) — The Illinois State Police (ISP) made a huge dent in the backlog of DNA testing kits, but now, they’re looking for more resources to finish the job.

ISP Director Brenden Kelly said the state has filled several positions to help speed the process up, but he said the state police have become much more efficient in processing the kits. ISP’s Division of Forensic Services (DFS) achieved a 48% overall reduction in Biology/DNA pending assignments, which is otherwise known as “the DNA backlog.”

On March 1, the backlog contained 9,289 pending assignments. As of Nov. 30, forensic scientists managed to bring the number of pending assignments down to 4,857.

“For more than a decade, trends in forensic labs across the country, including in Illinois, have been headed the wrong direction, but because of the hard work and discipline of the Illinois State Police we are finally headed in the right direction in Illinois,” Kelly said. “Our progress is real and significant, but no one in the Illinois State Police will be satisfied until all victims can trust that the cause of justice will be advanced and not delayed by forensics.”

Forensics outcomes across a variety of metrics have significantly improved.

  • This year, the average age of pending DNA/Biology assignments has been reduced from 247 in May 2019 to 110 days in November of 2020.
  • The number of DNA/Biology assignments that are older than a year was 1,329 in January 2020 but had dropped to 186 in November of 2020.
  • The number of pending sexual assault assignments that are more than six months old has gone from 1,059 in January to 280 in November of 2020.
  • The DNA/Biology section is completing 22% more assignments per month this year compared with 2019.

These outcomes were achieved in part by executing a multi-prong strategy:

  • The ISP DFS has deployed technology to assist in the reduction of backlogs and turnaround times, implemented laboratory accountability measures, robotics, Rapid DNA, Lean Six-Sigma efficiencies, and hired and trained additional forensic scientists.
  • The ISP Laboratory system implemented robotics to increase DNA casework capacity in November 2019. Robotics is now fully operational and are contributing to the backlog and turnaround time in DNA analysis.
  • To improve communication, ISP DFS began issuing agency-specific reports on pending assignments to enhance communication between investigating agencies, the state’s attorneys’ offices, and the laboratories. Agencies are asked to review their list of pending assignments and tell lab management of any cases that need immediate attention and those that no longer require analysis. For example, this process identified 1,200 felony drug cases closed with a court disposition while still showing pending assignments at the lab. As a result, lab resources were not squandered on testing these 1,200 closed cases. This communication has and will continue to improve the prioritization of casework and reduce the waste of lab resources.
  • As part of the plan to reduce the number of pending assignments, the ISP DFS implemented an aggressive hiring plan and continues to work to recruit and hire scientists, as well as implementing training that is effective and safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the beginning of 2019, ISP DFS has held two Forensic Science Trainee classes.  Even with the difficulties navigating through the pandemic, ISP DFS has been able to keep training on track.  The 2020 trainees are scheduled to complete their training between March 2021 and February 2022. 

Lawmakers were pleased to see that the backlog has been nearly cut in half, but they want to see more done.

Kelly said for that to happen, the general assembly would need to create a full-time forensics commission and not just rely on the task force as they have been already.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s Forensic Science Task Force, which Kelly chairs, continued to meet during the pandemic and made more specific recommendations that, if implemented, is expected to keep the momentum of reducing the backlog and improving turnaround times.

“Since the beginning of my administration, we have prioritized implementing policies and procedures that will allow the dedicated forensics team at ISP’s Division of Forensic Services to reduce the state’s DNA backlog. Thanks to the leadership of the Forensic Science Task Force, which my administration established in 2019, additional recommendations to help further decrease the backlog are now underway,” Pritzker said. “I am encouraged by the 48% reduction in forensic cases and will continue to support ISP’s work to bring brings victims and their loved ones a step closer to justice.”

The ISP DFS will also move into a new laboratory in Decatur, occupying roughly 12,000 square feet in the first two stories of the building.  The DFS plans to utilize this as a DNA lab, initially processing evidence submitted from property crimes. The lab is expected to further reduce turnaround times. Funding for the construction of a new forensics lab in the Joliet area was also secured under Pritzker’s bi-partisan capital bill and is moving forward under the Capital Development Board.

ISP’s success in decreasing the forensic backlog are not limited to the Biology/DNA section.

  • The latent print backlog was slashed by 35% this year and 78% since January 2019. Average turnaround time for fingerprints this year has been reduced by 62% since 2019.
  • Average turnaround time for firearms evidence this year has been reduced by 44% since 2019.
  • The trace chemistry section is completing 49% more assignments per month than last year.

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