July 8, 2008
Using DNA in smaller crimes could clog system
The story is straight out of Nancy Drew: A half-eaten corn dog found at the scene of a suburban office burglary yields DNA that links the crime to a man with 27 previous arrests. It's not fiction, though; it happened in Hennepin County, Minn., earlier this year.
New research shows that using DNA to solve property crimes like burglaries -- and not just violent crimes like homicides and sexual assaults -- is particularly effective. Last month, the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center released a study that found that DNA evidence from property crime scenes identifies suspects in twice as many cases and leads to twice as many arrests as more typical tools like witnesses and fingerprints.
But in the report, "The DNA Field Experiment," researchers also wrote that if collecting and processing DNA evidence at property crimes became the norm nationwide, it would overwhelm the criminal justice system.
"Most jurisdictions are having trouble processing special assaults and homicides," let alone burglaries, said John Roman, the study's principal author.
The latter finding is particularly relevant to local law enforcement officials. Because of limited forensic resources, the practice is working its way into police custom slowly.
"It's a new thing to this area," said Sgt. Kevin Gasiorowski, who heads the Pittsburgh police burglary squad.
He said it is unrealistic to expect Allegheny County's crime lab to handle the glut of evidence that would result from collecting DNA at all property crimes.
"We have 3,000 burglaries a year. They would be overrun," said Sgt. Gasiorowski. "It's not like on TV where you just get a swab of something and two minutes later it pops up on a computer."
Even excluding property crimes, competition for forensic resources is tough.
"You've got people saying you've got to look at old cases, you have the people who are investigating crimes, you have the people who are prosecuting crimes, and we're all taxing a system that has finite capacity," said John Rago, founding director of the Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law at Duquesne University. [Mark Godsey]
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