Illinois Governor JB Pritzker and Illinois State Police Acting Director Brendan Kelly on Wednesday highlighted a case management system they say will be a powerful tool in fixing the state’s staggering backlog of untested DNA evidence.
The state’s failure to quickly test forensic evidence is a longstanding problem, and getting worse, according to police data. A state report last year showed more than 3,000 pending DNA cases in state police labs. That backlog had grown to more than 5,000 untested cases as of March 2019, and was up to 6,345 cases as of Wednesday, according to a state police spokesperson.
Pritzker said Wednesday that ending the backlog is a “top priority” for him.
“We know that unacceptable backlogs and issues with transparency have plagued this process for far too long,” Pritzker said at a tour of the crime lab in Chicago, one of six forensic laboratories run by the Illinois State Police. “We are focusing on reducing the backlog [and] limiting the time that it takes to get to the results that are needed.”
The slow testing time and DNA backlog have been the subject of state legislative hearings.
“I’m sad, I’m disappointed in the system, the justice system. I feel that being a black woman with a black male child, that the system does not serve us,” Reginice McBride, whose son was shot to death in 2017, told state senators at a committee meeting in March.
On Wednesday, Pritzker acknowledged the importance of timely DNA testing for victims and families who had already suffered through one tragedy.
“They shouldn’t have to live that tragedy also through a delay in the forensics and the delay in the processing of cases,” Pritzker said.
Kelly said the new information management system, which was implemented under former Gov. Bruce Rauner in December 2018, is already helping make the testing process more efficient. Soon, Kelly promised, the system will also be used to increase transparency and accountability, by allowing crime victims and law enforcement officers to track evidence as it moves through the testing process.
“Putting all that out there, it will be a little painful to some extent because you’re going to see where the delays are in the process but by pushing transparency and having that constant pressure of transparency, you’re going to see a lot of people … start to come up with some very interesting ways to reduce that turnaround time,” Kelly said.
But, Kelly refused to give a timetable for when the state would start to make a dent in its evidence backlog.
“I can’t sit here and tell you that there’s gonna be a day when … the DNA backlog will be at a certain phase. You’ve seen so many labs over the years make commitments to things, and it turns out they’re entirely wrong,” Kelly said. “To say that there’s some point in which it’s magically going to disappear, that is not being honest with people, that’s not being honest with victims, that’s not being honest with people that are relying on the forensic evidence. So we need to tell them that we are fully committed to reducing the turnaround time, but it’s going to be a long slog.”
Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice desk. Follow him @pksmid.