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U.S. makes wide cuts in funds for DNA testing

Rape case backlogs estimated at 400,000 throughout the nation.

November 09, 2008|Benjamin Protess and Joel Rubin | Rubin is a Times staff writer. Protess is a reporter at ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative reporting newsroom.

Last summer, the Los Angeles Police Department was dealt a rude shock.

Expecting nearly $1 million in federal grant money to help cover the cost of analyzing DNA evidence in rape cases and other violent crimes, the department was awarded only half that much.

U.S. Department of Justice officials, who distribute the money to police agencies nationwide, told LAPD staff that the fault was their own. The LAPD had been too slow to spend about half the DNA grant money awarded in prior years, so its 2008 allotment was reduced. Meanwhile, an audit found that more than 7,000 rape kits are waiting to be analyzed, the largest known backlog in the country.

As dire as LAPD's problem is, it is hardly unique.

The Justice Department cut backlog funding this year to crime labs in 17 states, including California, because they had not spent federal grants dating as far back as 2004. About a quarter of the 105 law enforcement agencies that receive these grants had their funding docked, Justice Department officials said.

The cuts coincide with a soaring national DNA backlog. Although the federal government hasn't estimated the backlog in recent years, Human Rights Watch, which advocates for rape victims among others, has put it at about 400,000 cases.

Smaller jurisdictions are not immune. In Erie County, N.Y., the year-to-year backlog increased from 620 to 920 in 2007. In Ventura County, the backlog increased from 53 cases to 156 during the same period.

"Potentially hundreds if not thousands of rapists nationally could be apprehended if the frozen evidence of their crime was analyzed," said Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss, who has complained about the backlog for years. "It is the ultimate no-brainer."

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) wrote a letter last week to Atty. Gen. Michael Mukasey expressing her "strong concerns" about how the money is being spent. Maloney, who sponsored legislation that secured the funding, asked Mukasey for a detailed accounting.

"It would be outrageous if the backlogs are the result of the Department of Justice's negligent administration," Maloney said in a statement to The Times and ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative reporting newsroom.

It has been nearly a decade since Congress ordered the Justice Department to help crime labs reduce their backlogs. Since 2004, Congress has given the department $474 million for this purpose through the Debbie Smith Act, written by Maloney and named after a woman who advocates for eliminating backlogs. Smith was raped in 1989, but her attacker's DNA went untested for six years.

With this funding, the Bush administration said, the backlog would be eliminated in five years, a period that soon will expire.

But at the same time, an unprecedented number of DNA samples entered the nation's crime labs. New laws mandated that DNA be taken from more people, often including those arrested but not charged with a crime. Meanwhile, new technologies made it possible to analyze small or degraded samples.

It remains unclear why the LAPD and many other labs have not used all their grant money. Several labs contacted by ProPublica had no explanation for why the money hadn't been spent.

LAPD Assistant Chief Sharon Papa acknowledged that, on paper, the department had nearly $2 million in unspent federal DNA funds as of August. She and her staff said those figures did not account for about $500,000 of DNA work sent to private labs but not yet reflected on balance sheets.

The spending delay was largely the result of confusion about the time frames the Justice Department sets for spending the money, Papa and others said. She also said the cash flow problem hasn't slowed the pace of the department's DNA testing.

Renee Artman, director of the Ventura County Sheriff's lab, which used nearly all its 2006 federal funding, said many labs would like to use the money to hire more DNA analysts. But the grants cover only a fixed period (usually 12 months), which means labs can guarantee jobs for only that time.

"Not too many people are willing to take a risk and accept this position," Artman said.

The Justice Department would not allow anyone to speak on the record about DNA backlogs. Speaking anonymously, a department official said the agency is available to answer questions from labs and holds an annual conference for its grantees. "We've done an enormous amount of work to deal with rape kit problems," the official said.

The department is aware of the LAPD's problem and is "going to do what we can to assist them directly," the official said.

L.A. isn't the only city where the money sits unused for years.

In progress reports filed in early 2008, 26 labs said they had not yet fully tapped into 2006 DNA money. A lab in Allegheny County, Pa., hadn't used all of its 2004 grant.

At the Illinois State Police crime lab, the DNA backlog was eliminated in 2005, but it reemerged with 938 cases in September 2008. Yet the lab has not fully spent its grants from 2006 or 2007.

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