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Alabama’s forensic backlog

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Case backlog is a problem that plagues most state forensic crime labs. These labs, at no fault of their own, are generally under-funded and lack the necessary staff to adequately handle the constant barrage of criminal cases that require forensic analysis. Crimes such as sexual assault can take over a month to analyze and generate a cost of approximately $1,200 to complete. The state of Alabama is just such an example of how mounting backlogs can present an overwhelming challenge for a state crime lab.

Local officials estimate that approximately 4 rapes occur daily in their state, and as recently as 2005, there were more than 900 rape cases that needed forensic testing. Police could expect to wait almost three years for forensic results once they submitted a case to the Alabama Department of Forensics. Today those numbers have drastically been reduced to just less than 300 untested rape cases and an average wait time of 12 months or less. As a result of this reduction, the forensic lab has helped local law enforcement solve 1,600 old criminal cases making them the No. 1 state-run forensics laboratory in the nation per capita for solving cold cases. The state achieved these goals with the help of federal funding and by building a crime lab in the city of Hoover, specifically designed for DNA analysis in criminal investigations.

While this decrease in backlogged cases and turnaround time for processing these cases is marked, the backlog continues to worry law enforcement officials and public policy makers. These delays in forensic testing prolong the investigative process, consequently allowing a crime to go unsolved and perhaps giving a repeat offender the chance to assault another victim even though the evidence to potentially solve the case is available. In addition, Alabama’s economy is currently in a weakened state and budget cuts to the state forensic labs have begun to occur, causing DNA experts to fear that wait times for DNA analysis will again increase. And while the state of Alabama continues to make great strides in eliminating their forensic backlog, the Chief of Biology for their crime lab was quoted as saying, “Even one backlogged case is too many.”

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