Illinois State Police Director Brendan Kelly on Thursday told an Illinois Senate panel that his agency had made “remarkable” progress “significantly” reducing the state’s backlog of untested DNA evidence.
“We are finally heading in the right direction in Illinois,” Kelly told the Senate Public Health committee during a virtual hearing.
The huge build-up of untested evidence has been a problem for the state for years, delaying justice for victims, stifling investigations and leaving some defendants locked up for years awaiting trial. Kelly pledged to fix it early in 2019.
Since then, according to new data released by the Illinois State Police, the backlog has been cut in half, with DNA evidence from 4,857 cases awaiting testing at state crime labs as of Nov. 30, 2020, compared to 9,289 pending assignments on March 1, 2019. State police officials say they’ve also almost eliminated the pending cases that are more than a year old.
The average time it takes to test is down to about four months, according to ISP.
The massive backlog has been the subject of repeated legislative hearings chaired by Illinois State Sen. Patricia Van Pelt, D-Chicago, with victims and their families crying out for help. On Thursday, Van Pelt said she believed the progress made by the state police was evidence “these hearings are working and people’s voices are being heard.”
“You all have done fantastic so far, but I know that’s not enough,” Van Pelt said. “Director Kelly said he’s not satisfied and neither are we satisfied. But we want to acknowledge that we have had significant success since we’ve been having these hearings.”
In an interview with WBEZ, Kelly said the backlog built up over 20 years, because there was a surge in forensic evidence being collected and submitted.
“It’s evidence that the public demands, they expect it. It’s part of our culture now. And there’s an expectation within the justice system that forensic evidence be part of almost every single case,” Kelly said in an interview with WBEZ.
He said the state police crime lab failed to adapt to the changing times.Â
“The demand on our laboratory systems has gone through the roof, but now we’re adjusting to that and we’re going to be able to meet that demand in a timely manner because for victims of a crime waiting, the longer it takes to be able to get action from a prosecutor or for someone to be arrested … the less likely it is they’re going to see some just outcome,” Kelly said.
Kelly said they’ve sped up their testing time by adding scientists, increasing the use of robotics and improving communication with other agencies.Â
The improved communication with outside law enforcement groups, Kelly said, helped them identify 1,200 felony drug cases that were awaiting testing at the lab but had actually already been disposed of in court. Meaning, obviously, there was no longer any need to test the evidence.
“And because we didn’t have to test something that was no longer relevant, we didn’t waste the time and we didn’t waste our resources,” Kelly said.
Mallory Littlejohn, the legal director at the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, said she has not yet seen an impact from the improved testing times in her work advocating for survivors of sexual abuse.
“It’s hard to ascertain the practical implications of them clearing the backlog because of [COVID-19],” Littlejohn said.
All trials in Cook County are on hold right now, and the county court system has slowed to a crawl to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Littlejohn said that means even if DNA testing is coming back faster, her clients aren’t seeing their cases move forward.
“I have faith that in the long run it will be beneficial, but at this point is just too early to tell,” Littlejohn said.
And Littlejohn said the pandemic has diminished the immediate need for DNA testing in sex cases, because sexual assaults aren’t being reported as frequently.
The Chicago Police Department reports that sexual assaults are down about 20% compared to last year.
Littlejohn said she does not believe there’s actually been a drop in assaults, but said fewer are being reported because everyone is trying to avoid the hospital, which is where most sex abuse investigations begin.
However, Kelly said overall the amount of DNA evidence being submitted for testing is about the same as in recent years, despite a temporary drop in evidence being submitted when the COVID-19 pandemic began.
In the past two years, the state police have hired 48 forensic scientists. But even with those new hires, the crime lab is still understaffed, falling about 100 scientists short of its “minimum full staffing” said ISP spokeswoman Beth Hundsdorfer.