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Illinois DNA Backlog Rises, But State Police Say That’s Not Whole Story

The Illinois DNA backlog rises, but state police say the “artificial” spike is the result of improved tracking and transparency.

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Numbers from the Illinois State Police show the agency has untested DNA evidence from more than 6,300 cases — a 24 percent increase in untested cases compared to just last month.

Numbers from the Illinois State Police show the agency has untested DNA evidence from more than 6,300 cases — a 24 percent increase in untested cases compared to just last month.

WBEZ/Sebastian Hidalgo

Updated April 26, 2019 at 6:45 p.m.

The backlog of untested DNA evidence in Illinois State Police custody rose dramatically in the past month, however, state police officials said the elevated numbers do not give an accurate picture of the progress being made at state crime labs because they’re based on an outdated method of tracking the evidence backlog.

Numbers from the state police show the agency has untested DNA evidence from more than 6,300 cases. That’s a 24% increase in untested cases compared to just last month, when the state reported 5,121 untested cases.

But state police spokesman Lt. Joe Hutchins said those numbers are “not a comprehensive representation of the current state” of the evidence backlog, because the agency no longer distinguishes between DNA and other types of evidence when making work assignments or tracking the progress of cases in its forensic laboratories. Hutchins said looking at the total amount of untested evidence assigned to the “forensic biology/DNA section” gives a clearer view of the evidence backlog.

State police data show a drop in untested evidence of a little less than 1 percent between March and April when comparing those combined figures.

State Police Acting Director Brendan Kelly said for the first time, the agency has “one fair, consistent metric” to evaluate the evidence backlog.

“I think most folks just want to know, was a piece of evidence collected at a crime scene or from a victim, and was it tested. Is it done? And rather than have all these individual chunks of it and be frankly debating the meaning of this and the meaning that, we just wanted to create a clear and fair measurement so that the public could see that progress was being made,” Kelly said in explaining why they had moved to the combined total.

Kelly predicted that improved tracking and increased transparency would lead to an improved process and a decrease in the backlog.

Mallory Littlejohn, the managing attorney for the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, said more transparency is always welcome, but doesn’t get at the heart of the problem.

“Tracking and the speed of the test are two completely different things. So if they’re tracking it and it’s still taking a year and a half, two years, I don’t think that it would have a great impact on the clients,” Littlejohn said. “The information isn’t the problem it’s the delay in the testing.”

Littlejohn said typically with the sexual assault survivors she works with, the wait for DNA results takes around a year or a year and a half.

“It has a huge negative emotional impact. Survivors are consistently reliving that trauma as they wait for the results to come back,” Littlejohn said.

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice desk. Follow him @pksmid.

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