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Chester County Press

Forensic lab funding lays groundwork to strengthen state's DNA law

07/24/2013 04:46PM ● By Acl

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-9) said that $1.5 million added to the state budget to support the state's forensic laboratories will help the Pennsylvania State Police continue reducing the backlog of DNA samples to be tested as the General Assembly moves forward on legislation to strengthen and modernize Pennsylvania's DNA law.

"There's no good reason to allow a DNA backlog to exist," said Senator Pileggi, who strongly advocated for the state funds. "The science is indisputable: The efficient use of DNA analysis saves lives, brings criminals to justice, and exonerates the innocent."

In 2011, the State Police reported a backlog of 5,000 cases. That has been reduced significantly, to 893 cases involving samples submitted as part of an active investigation and 1,618 cases where samples must be uploaded to the national CODIS DNA database.

Senator Pileggi is the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 150, which would strengthen and modernize Pennsylvania's DNA laws. The bill was overwhelmingly approved by the Senate in June and is now in the House Judiciary Committee.

"DNA evidence is a keystone to modern law enforcement," said Rep. Ron Marsico (R-105), Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "Equipping police to use DNA analysis appropriately not only solves crimes more quickly, but also gives our police officers more time to investigate offenses, deter crime, and serve in the community."

"I want to thank Chairman Marsico for his support of strengthening Pennsylvania's DNA laws," Senator Pileggi said. "I look forward to working with him to send a bill to the Governor's desk this fall."

Appropriations of $1.5 million were also included in each of the previous two state budgets to support the forensic labs, and the State Police received funding from the U.S. Department of Justice totaling $4.2 million between 2009 and 2012 specifically to help reduce the DNA backlog. Over that time, the State Police added approximately 14 individuals to work on DNA analysis and processing.

"The General Assembly has added a total of $4.5 million to support the state's forensic laboratories in the past three state budgets," Senator Pileggi said. "We've demonstrated our commitment to reducing the DNA backlog, and good progress has been made. It's now time to update Pennsylvania's use of DNA technology."

Senate Bill 150 will require individuals arrested for serious crimes to submit DNA samples. In addition, the bill establishes privacy protections, an expungement process and new quality controls. It also authorizes a new type of DNA search to help identify suspects in unsolved crimes.

The majority of other states and the federal government already collect DNA from those arrested for serious crimes. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed the constitutionality of such laws.

Although some have questioned the potential cost of expanded DNA collection, a study in Indiana concluded that collecting DNA samples from arrestees could save that state $60 million annually. In addition, the federal Katie Sepich Enhanced DNA Collection Act, enacted in January 2013, authorizes federal grants to assist states with any costs associated with expanded DNA collection.

Pennsylvania has five state-owned forensic laboratories. Currently, all DNA-related analysis and processing is handled by the Forensic DNA Division in Greensburg.

Senate Bill 150 is supported by the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, the Pennsylvania State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, and the national organization DNA Saves.