Wisconsin testing delays grow for DNA and other evidence

MADISON — Wisconsin crime labs took longer to complete DNA, ballistics and forensic evidence testing during Attorney General Josh Kaul's first year in office, posing a problem for the Democrat after he hammered his Republican predecessor over lab delays during their 2018 campaign.

Kaul released a report Wednesday that shows delays in DNA testing grew last year by about 20 days compared to 2018 and 2017, Republican Brad Schimel's last two years as attorney general. The delays grew even though the labs received hundreds of fewer DNA assignments than in either 2018 or 2017 and legislators gave Kaul two more DNA analysts in the 2019-2021 state budget.

Ballistics testing, meanwhile, took an average of 268 days per case, up from 210 days in 2018 and 171 days in 2017, even though the budget allocated an additional firearms analyst and three ballistics analysts completed training last year.

Forensic imaging cases took an average of 69 days, up from 62 days in 2018 but still better than the average 94-day delay in 2017. Forensic imaging analysts use a variety of techniques to detect evidence at crime scenes, such as using special cameras to find fingerprints, and work to enhance videos.

Kaul's administration did manage to shorten waiting times for fingerprint, footprint, tool mark, drug and toxicology tests in 2019, the report said. But delays in DNA and ballistics results can lead to serious offenders going undetected longer. DNA is the gold standard for identifying suspects beyond a reasonable doubt and ballistics are key to tracing guns used in crimes.

Kaul told reporters during a video conference that the labs spent much of 2019 trying to catch up with backlogs of cases left over from the Schimel administration. DNA analysts, in particular, had to complete a Schimel-initiated project to analyze thousands of untested sexual assault cases submitted in 2017 and 2018. The spike in submissions from the project makes it difficult to draw a fair comparison to 2019 submissions, Kaul said. The ballistics unit, meanwhile, was down two people for part of the year, he added.

He also noted that he didn't receive as many new analysts as he requested in the state budget. Kaul had asked Gov. Tony Evers for 19 new analysts. Evers gave him 17 in the executive state budget but Republicans on the Legislature's finance committee revised the spending plan to give him just over seven new positions, including the two DNA analysts and one new ballistics analyst.

Training new analysts can take months, but the new hires are now up to speed, Kaul said. The labs have added a new DNA extraction system that allows for more automation and faster processing, he said, and evidence submission guidelines for local police have been clarified in hopes of reducing unnecessary submissions. All those factors should lead to dramatically improved turnaround times in 2020 and 2021, he said.

“We’re getting closer to catching up,” Kaul said. “It’s not like flipping a switch. The 2020 and 2021 numbers is where we’ll really see the impact (of changes)."

Kaul attacked Schimel on the campaign trail for being too slow to complete crime lab tests and delaying justice for victims. A review of Wisconsin crime lab operations that Florida International University’s National Forensic Science Technology Center released in September 2018, near the end of Schimel’s tenure, found that the labs suffered from multiple problems, including poor morale, below-market pay and accepting too much evidence from police.

Kaul released another report Wednesday detailing the labs’ responses to the Florida university's review. Lab workers received a 2% raise in January and will get another 2% raise in next January as part of across-the-board raises for all state employees included in the budget. Meanwhile, lab managers have implemented a pay progression scale to bring analysts' salaries more in line with their private sector counterparts. The labs' chief administrator, Nicole Roehm, said during the video conference she wants to expand the scale in the future to further encourage analysts to stay.

The labs now reside in their own division, allowing them to purchase equipment and hire independently, the report said. Managers have been given more access to state Justice Department administrators so they can better relay information to analysts.

Roehm said the labs have created a dedicated five-person team to respond to crime scenes, which will help reduce the need to pull analysts away from the labs to work in the field and created a case manager position to revise submission guidelines and act as a point person in explaining to local police why submissions might be rejected.