HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut officials are trying to curb the so-called CSI effect that forensic experts say has helped inundate crime labs across the country with record numbers of evidence testing requests, in an effort to reduce a huge backlog at the state’s lab.
The term, named after the popular TV show “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” refers to the increasing public awareness of advances in DNA testing and other forensic exams and the growing expectation of jurors to see forensic evidence at criminal trials. The result, experts say, is that police are sending much more evidence to labs for testing than they used to.
Police agencies across Connecticut are now being asked for the first time to limit their submissions to the state lab under new guidelines that took effect Jan. 1. The state also plans to hire 25 to 35 new lab workers to reduce the backlog to a manageable level, but it may take two to three years before the new employees are trained and ready to work, said Michael Lawlor, criminal justice aide to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
The number of DNA cases that have not been started at the forensics lab in Meriden skyrocketed from less than 250 in mid-2006 to nearly 3,900 last year, according to the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, which oversees the lab. During the same time period, the number of lab workers has decreased about 10 percent to 90. The wait for DNA testing in many cases is more than three years.
If no extra staff were added, officials say the lab’s DNA unit by April 2013 would only be able to perform testing in felony cases that are reaching the statute of limitations for prosecution. The lab wouldn’t be able to test samples in hundreds of other criminal cases.
The lab is also dealing with backlogs in other types of evidence testing, including nearly 1,700 firearms cases and 1,400 latent fingerprinting cases.
The state lab’s backlog follows a national trend. DNA casework backlogs at labs across the country increased from about 38,000 in 2005 to nearly 112,000 in 2009, according to the latest available U.S. Justice Department statistics. In addition to an increase of samples from crime scenes, most states have passed laws requiring DNA testing of criminals, adding to many labs’ backlogs.
Lawlor said it’s too early to tell what effect the lab’s new evidence limits are having, but he expects a 10 to 15 percent drop in the workload over time.
“Most states have begun to follow this procedure to avoid the ‘CSI effect,'” Lawlor said about the limits.
Under the new evidence guidelines, the lab won’t perform DNA testing in several types of cases, including recovered stolen vehicles not used in any other crimes, found property, thefts of property worth less than $2,000 and misdemeanors. The number of samples tested will also be limited to one to two for property crimes and five for robberies and less-serious assaults.
The lab will evaluate on a case-by-case basis how many samples it will test in homicides, sexual assaults and serious assaults. Officials also imposed limits on testing in firearm and computer crime cases, and will not do fingerprint testing in minor cases.
Compounding the backlog problem is that the lab lost its accreditation last August after Justice Department auditors found problems with supervision, reporting of case results, evidence control, data security, quality assurance and validation techniques for DNA test results. The lack of accreditation cut off the lab’s access to national DNA databanks run by the FBI and used to compare samples with those found at other crime scenes.
Lawlor and state police officials insist the problems are administrative and have nothing to do with the quality of the work at the respected lab. Lawlor said an inspector from the accrediting agency is scheduled to return to the lab later this month, and state officials are confident that the lab will regain its accreditation as early as February.
Police chiefs across the state are disappointed with the backlog and accreditation problems at the lab and had hoped they would have been resolved by now, said Redding Police Chief Douglas Fuchs, president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association.
“While we would have hoped that all evidence submitted for analysis could be handled in a timely manner, (we) do realize that at this time — resources being what they are — that is not an option and have asked all of our departments to work within the parameters of (the guidelines),” Fuchs said Friday.
“We are aware that the municipal police departments account for a large percentage of the evidence which is submitted annually and we are committed to being a part of the solution,” Fuchs said.
The long waits for forensic test results are holding up cases in the court system, Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane said. But he and other officials said they don’t know of any cases that had to be dismissed because the statute of limitations ran out. Figures on court cases on hold because of pending tests at the state lab weren’t immediately available.
“The delays in court congestion is a problem,” Kane said. “And the backlog in the lab is one of the reasons for the delay and congestion in the criminal courts.”
But, Kane said, the crime lab predicament “is an opportunity more than it is a crisis.”
“Everybody knows things have to be done budget-wise and improvements are needed in administrative structure and management,” Kane said.
The Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection estimates that it needs 35 new lab workers at a cost of about $3.7 million a year to staff the lab appropriately and eliminate backlogs.
Famed forensic scientist Henry Lee, who was head of the Connecticut lab from 1978 to 2000 and built its national prominence, said the “CSI effect” and larger caseloads have spurred a new trend in forensics — being more selective about what evidence is gathered at crime scenes.
“Today everybody needs the laboratory and laboratory services. It’s so crucial,” Lee said. “You have to look at which evidence is most important. You need to prioritize.”
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