August 03, 2021

Illinois State Police significantly reduces DNA backlog, asks legislators for more reforms

Director seeks advisory council for forensics

Representatives of the Illinois State Police said the backlog of forensic evidence in Illinois has been reduced significantly, but the support of lawmakers is needed to further address delays and deficiencies in the process.

Illinois State Police Director Brendan Kelly made those comments to the Illinois Senate Public Health Committee during a Thursday hearing on the DNA backlog and evidence processing.

Kelly said that since 2019, the ISP’s Division of Forensic Services has reduced the number of “biology DNA pending assignments,” referred to as the DNA backlog, by 48%. In March 2019, the backlog had 9,829 pending assignments, which has fallen to 4,857 pending assignments as of November.

In a January hearing before the same committee, Kelly told legislators that the average time for processing DNA evidence was 215 days – about seven months – and that the number of DNA biology assignments that were older than a year totaled more than 1,300. As of November, Kelly said the average time for processing DNA evidence has dropped to 110 days, and the number of cases older than a year has fallen to 196.

The improvement in the rate of processing the backlog was completed with a reduced staff as well, he said. Many forensic scientists from the ISP temporarily were reassigned to the Illinois Department of Public Health for more than four months to assist the state’s COVID-19 testing system.

State Sen. Patricia Van Pelt, D-Chicago, who heads the Public Health Committee, apologized that the Chicago Police Department and other local law enforcement agencies were not present at the hearing in response to repeated criticism of the department from community witnesses. Van Pelt said future hearings would involve more stakeholders, including municipal police departments.

Witnesses from Youth Opposed to Violence Everywhere, the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Missing and Murdered Black Women and Girls and members of the clergy throughout Illinois testified about the community’s frustration with the number of unsolved homicides and sexual crimes in Chicago and across the state.

“I have personally given up on Chicago Police Department in solving crimes when it comes to Black men or women. I’ve given up,” the Rev. Robin Hood, representing Mothers Against Violence Everywhere, said in his testimony.

Many witnesses praised the reduction in the backlog but asked for more to be done on behalf of victims at the local level, such as more transparency regarding the status of DNA evidence in their cases and compassionate communication between law enforcement and the families of victims.

Organizers during the hearing also stressed that any commission or legislation being considered to address the DNA backlog should have community representation.

“I want to thank the effort that was put forth, the great work that’s been done and how forensics have improved,” Hood said. “When you talk about legislation, we need to be part of that conversation. We need to make sure that we are part of that conversation so we can have some say-so in it.”

Kelly requested that both houses of the General Assembly pass legislation to create a permanent, full-time commission on forensic science. He said the commission should be made up of the stakeholders on all sides of forensic science and should be based on the Sentencing Policy Advisory Council, which analyzes the consequences of sentencing laws and policies and delivers reports and recommendations based on its findings to the General Assembly, the Illinois Supreme Court and the governor’s office.

The commission could discover new deficiencies in the process and devise ways to solve them. One example given was the removal of 1,200 pending tests in the backlog when it was discovered they were for cases that already had been closed.

“If we see a 48% reduction in the DNA backlog, well, where’s the 48% increase in arrests?” Kelly said. “Where’s the 48% increase in charges, where’s the 48% increase in convictions, where’s the 48% increase in [the] closure of cases so that victims and their families can get some type of closure?

“That’s really going to be the continuing challenge as we reduce this metric of figuring out what are the obstacles, what are the biases, what are the barriers that are preventing a greater degree of justice and better outcomes throughout the entire system.”

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