WASHINGTON — The FBI has fallen behind in processing DNA from nearly 200,000 convicted criminals — 85% of all samples it has collected since 2001 — Justice Department records show.
The backlog, which expands monthly, means most of the biological samples the bureau collects have not been stored in the national DNA database and used to solve crimes. DNA from 34,000 convicts has been added to the database since 2001, resulting in 600 matches to unsolved crimes, according to statistics furnished by the Justice Department to the Senate Judiciary Committee. At the same rate, the unloaded samples could help solve an additional 3,200 crimes.
The backlog expanded by about 80,000 samples in 2006, when a law took effect requiring that all federal convicts, rather than just violent felons, submit DNA samples. A new law requiring DNA to be taken from about 500,000 federal arrestees and detainees could swell the backlog. Rules for implementing that law are due early next year, according to Office of Management and Budget documents.
Justice provided the backlog data to the committee in July in response to questions posed to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales during an April appearance before the panel.
Using different figures, FBI lab spokeswoman Ann Todd said in an e-mail that about 156,000 DNA samples, about 78% of those collected, have not been put in the database. She declined to comment on the discrepancy with the numbers from the Justice Department, the FBI's parent organization. The lab processes about 5,500 samples a month, Todd said. The laboratory receives about 8,000 samples a month, meaning the backlog continues to grow.
"It's embarrassing because it's the FBI, which is supposed to be this powerful organization, but it's not surprising," said Lawrence Kobilinsky, biology professor and DNA specialist at John Jay College in New York City. "Across the nation, backlogs are an ongoing problem, a tragedy, really, but one that it looks like is going to be with us for awhile."
Since 1998, the FBI has maintained a system that matches genetic profiles from criminals and, in some states, criminal suspects with DNA drawn from unsolved crimes. All 50 states and the FBI lab in Quantico, Va., maintain their own databases, which are linked by computer software maintained by the FBI.
Through May, the national DNA database held 4.8 million criminal samples and DNA from about 178,000 unsolved crimes, according to an FBI website. It had scored matches that assisted 50,343 investigations.
The FBI's exacting testing standards caused the DNA "bottleneck," Deputy Assistant Attorney General Richard Hertling said in a letter to the committee. The FBI lab is studying an automated system that could cut test times significantly, he said.
Robert Fram, chief of scientific analysis at the FBI lab, declined to be interviewed.