About 18 years ago, just as DNA testing in the criminal justice system was becoming vogue, the Indiana State Polices Laboratory Division received samples to examine from about 250 cases.
During the next decade, the volume of samples sent to the four state police labs around Indiana grew at an exponential rate. So much so, that by 2005 there was a backlog of about 940 pending criminal cases that needed DNA testing.
Now, with a larger lab in Indianapolis, more biologists working for the department, the transferring of cases from the various labs across the state and the constant upgrades in technology, that number has been cut by nearly two-thirds.
And state police hope to keep it that way.
Every crime lab has a backlog. The issue really is whats your turnaround time, said Eric Lawrence, director of forensic analysis who has been with the state police for 28 years.
At the end of 2011, there was a statewide backlog of 389 cases revolving around DNA that needed testing, according to the laboratorys annual report.
Also down was the forensic backlog surrounding all cases – whether involving firearms, drugs, latent prints or document analysis – that had been in the laboratories hands for more than 45 days.
That number has dropped from 3,803 in 2005 to 1,060 last year.
Our goal is to complete 75 percent of our cases in 45 days, Lawrence said. At the same time, if a police agency has some sort of rush, some high-profile case, or something that can be an immediate threat to public safety, we want to meet those needs too.
Forensic evidence backlogs came to the forefront somewhat recently when it was reported that Michigans State Police lab had a large backlog and faced losing accreditation through the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors.
That organization accredits most state police crime labs throughout the United States, and losing such accreditation could cast doubt on the accuracy of testing such evidence.
Along with trying to reduce the backlog, those in the Michigan lab were working to meet new standards set by the society of crime laboratory directors, and thus asked for multiple extensions to meet all the criteria to remain accredited.
The division was granted a third – and final – extension to get its house in order by this summer.
But Michigan is not alone in needing extensions.
Eighteen other crime labs throughout the country have recently asked for extensions to meet new standards to remain accredited, including Wisconsin and Indiana.
Indiana laboratories are currently in the first extension, which isnt unusual, said Ralph Keaton, the executive director of the American Society of Crime Lab Directors.
According to Lawrence, the situation in Indiana is nowhere near that in Michigan.
The delay in verifying the accreditation of Indianas labs was because of the Super Bowl and the Big 10 basketball tournament, which Lawrence said kept officials from the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors from inspecting all of the states labs.
They couldnt get hotel rooms, Lawrence said.
Lawrence said that once officials with the Society of Crime Laboratory Directors finally were able to inspect the states labs, they found 19 corrective actions the laboratories needed to address.
Most of these were generally administrative in nature, Lawrence said, and the department has submitted documents showing those corrective actions have been implemented.
By sometime in August we expect to be fully reaccredited, Lawrence said.
Sharing the load
At the end of 2011, the laboratory at the Indiana State Polices Fort Wayne Post just off of Ellison Road had a backlog of 726 cases, including 49 involving DNA samples.
John Vanderkolk, the lab manager in Fort Wayne, said the large lab in Indianapolis is what keeps backlogs down compared to previous years.
Its the No. 1 reason, he said.
Vanderkolk also said that labs around Indiana will sometimes transfer work. If ones backed up too much, another lab might take evidence off its hands to test.
And both Vanderkolk and Lawrence said technology is being kept updated in all labs across the state. It must, in order to keep up with the advances in forensic testing.
It seems to always kick in and expand, said Lawrence of testing that seems to be continuously developing. We basically can do touch DNA testing, where if you hold a beer can, or hold that steering wheel, were typing DNA you cant even see.
But with that type of testing, officials can expect more samples, more tests needed, and are keeping prepared so as not to fall into another backlog like they had in 2005.