Wisconsin agency preps for big jump in DNA testing

November 24, 2014

In this Nov. 19, 2014 photo, James Andreas, forensic supervisor in the DNA unit at the Wisconsin State Crime Laboratory in Madison, Wis., checks the blueprints for additional lab space to accommodate nearly 20 new analysts and techs. The new workers will handle thousands of incoming samples next year when a new state law requiring police to obtain DNA upon arrest for a violent felony and upon all misdemeanor convictions.

MADISON The state Department of Justice has hired nearly twenty more workers and begun a pricey renovation of its Madison crime lab so that it will be able to handle tens of thousands of additional DNA samples when new collection requirements take effect next year.

Wisconsin currently takes DNA samples from anyone convicted of a felony and certain sex-related misdemeanors. A Republican-backed law set to take effect on April 1 dramatically expands the grounds for collection.

The measure requires local police to take DNA from anyone arrested for a violent felony and to ship the samples to the DOJ, although the agency won't be allowed to process them until a judge finds probable cause that a crime was committed in each case. The law also requires anyone convicted of any misdemeanor to submit a DNA sample.

The law's supporters say collecting DNA samples will help solve more crimes. Civil rights advocates, though, contend the expanded collection is an invasion of privacy.

The law means the DOJ will have to handle tens of thousands of additional samples. The agency already collects about 12,000 DNA samples from convicted felons annually and expects to receive 25,000 samples from felony arrests and 40,000 samples from misdemeanor convictions next year.

The DOJ operates crime labs in Madison, Milwaukee and Wausau, although only the Madison and Milwaukee facilities handle DNA testing. All the samples from the collection expansion will go to the Madison lab, said Brian O'Keefe, administrator of the DOJ's Division of Law Enforcement Services.

Using money generated through DNA surcharges on offenders, the DOJ has hired and trained eight additional analysts and 11 technicians to handle the new samples. The agency also has tapped the surcharges to cover $5 million in renovations at the Madison lab to house the new workers and all the new samples. Construction began in July and is expected to be completed by March.

The DOJ's crime labs struggled in the mid-2000s to keep up with extracting DNA profiles from crime scene evidence as police and prosecutors submitted more samples in hopes of finding enough DNA to identify the suspect. Evidence in nearly 1,800 cases was sitting on crime lab shelves waiting for testing when Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen took office in 2007.

Van Hollen convinced lawmakers to let him hire 31 additional analysts and in 2010 declared he had eliminated the backlog. Currently, evidence in fewer than 500 cases is waiting for testing and the average turnaround time is 35 days, DOJ officials say.

O'Keefe said the new law shouldn't extend waiting times.

The new personnel will be devoted to handling arrestee and misdemeanor convicts' samples exclusively and they won't have to spend time extracting DNA from them.

The agency plans to forward the samples to a private Texas lab that it already uses to extract DNA from samples from felony convicts. For $20 per sample analysts there will pull DNA from the saliva, build profiles and ship them back to Madison. Analysts here will upload them into state and national databases and look for hits with profiles of unknown suspects. If they get a match they'll process the sample themselves to verify the profile, O'Keefe said.

 

Associated Press