May 16, 2001
State police seeking assistance from congress
By DORI MEINERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON - An Illinois State Police official urged Congress Tuesday to spend $85 million to reduce the backlog in DNA testing and other critical evidence analysis at more than 300 crime labs across the country.
In Illinois, it takes the state's crime labs eight to 10 months to handle a DNA test - a vast improvement over the 16 months it once took, said Michael Sheppo, the bureau chief in charge of the state's nine crime labs.
Yet the state's forensic scientists are in a perpetual state of catch-up.
"Today in Illinois and throughout our nation, we are facing a crisis - a crisis caused by a shortage of forensic science resources," Sheppo said. "Since 1990, the average U.S. forensic laboratory has experienced an increase in caseload of 23 percent, while budgets have grown only 10 percent and staff size by only 9 percent."
Sheppo joined his counterparts from several other states before the Senate Judiciary Committee to highlight the need to improve states' crime labs even as new cases of those wrongfully convicted continue to come to light.
Jeffrey Todd Pierce was freed from an Oklahoma prison last week after 15 years behind bars for a rape that a DNA test now shows he didn't commit. In a high-profile Springfield case, recent DNA tests also indicate the wrong men may have been convicted of the 1986 murder of medical student Lori Roscetti.
Nationwide, DNA testing has cleared more than 80 men and women who were convicted for crimes they didn't commit, including at least 10 who were sentenced to death, said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
Although Congress last year passed legislation authorizing $85 million for state crime lab improvements in the next fiscal year, the Bush administration didn't request any funding for the program in its budget proposal sent to Congress earlier this year.
The program's backers on the Senate Judiciary Committee are a bipartisan bunch. They include committee chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Leahy. Durbin and Leahy also are members of the Appropriations Committee.
A recent study by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors found that 9,000 additional forensic scientists would be needed to process DNA evidence within 30 days.
Illinois needs another 160 scientists and support personnel to process its current caseload in a timely manner, Sheppo said. Meanwhile, state officials predict the state could lose up to 190 forensic scientists by 2005 from retirement and normal attrition.
The state police have proposed construction of a $42 million Forensic Sciences Institute to train new scientists for crime labs in Illinois and throughout the Midwest.
The Illinois State Police forensic science laboratory system is the third largest in the world.