SPRINGFIELD — Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Friday said the Illinois State Police no longer has any DNA evidence from sexual assault cases that has not been tested within six months, a significant improvement from a backlog that existed for years.
Under a 2010 state law, forensic evidence in sexual assaults are required to be tested within 180 days if the state police has “sufficient staffing and resources.” The state hasn’t been able to fully comply with that statute until now, according to the governor’s office.
Pritzker said when he took office in 2019, there was a backlog of nearly 2,000 sexual assault cases with DNA evidence that had not been tested within six months.
“In some cases, kits were misplaced or sat on shelves for years. In the worst cases, they were lost entirely,” said Pritzker, flanked by other state officials at a state police facility in Belleville. “In the past, survivors waited years with no word, just to find out that their evidence was never even processed in the first place. That’s legally and morally unacceptable.”
Pritzker was promoting the end of the backlog in a reelection year as he faces Republican candidates who’ve repeatedly tried to paint him and other Democrats as weak on crime and criminal justice issues.
Pritzker said his predecessor, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, allowed for the state police’s forensics labs to be “chronically underfunded.” Feuding between Rauner and the Democratic-controlled state legislature led by House Speaker Michael Madigan resulted in a budget impasse that lasted more than 700 days.
“Forensic scientists were stuck with old equipment, cumbersome software and constant staffing shortages,” Pritzker said. “Every day they got more cases than they could process.”
On Friday, state police Director Brendan Kelly said reducing the DNA backlog so no kits go without testing under 180 days “is just the first phase” of efforts to improve.
“We are going to be holding ourselves accountable to reaching the 90-day mark in the next phase, as we get faster and faster in the years ahead,” he said. “Survivors of sexual assault, and all crimes, are often able to find some sense of closure through successful prosecution of cases and our goal is to help bring that sense of closure as soon as possible so the healing can begin.”
Carrie Ward, CEO of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, praised the state’s quicker turnaround time on DNA evidence testing and said “it means that survivors are important and that the trauma of their sexual assault experience is recognized.”
But she said getting the backlog to six months or less is not a total victory.
“Six months is still a long time for survivors to wait,” said Ward. “We cannot be complacent with our progress.”
Elizabeth Payne, managing attorney for the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, echoed that sentiment but also said the process for testing the evidence and finding the alleged attacker is often complicated. Payne said it can still take well over six months to complete the process of finding a match to a potential perpetrator, and law enforcement will often not bring charges until that entire process is completed.
“The law governing sexual assault evidence was passed in 2010 and it’s always recommended that testing be completed within six months and it’s taken Illinois 12 years to comply with that law,” Payne said in a telephone interview Friday. “So it’s certainly positive that we’ve achieved it, but we shouldn’t lose sight of how long it took us to get there and how many survivors were impacted in the meantime.”
The state police will be opening new crime labs in Joliet and Decatur, and Pritzker has pledged to add more troopers and forensic scientists to the department.
Also Friday, Pritzker signed legislation to increase the number of surveillance cameras along expressways and state highways in Cook County and 21 other counties throughout Illinois. The state’s fiscal year 2023 budget included $20 million for this technology.
It’s the latest anti-crime legislation he’s signed in recent weeks as the Democrats look to seize control of the crime issue.
Pritzker earlier signed a measure that would crack down on people convicted of committing organized retail crime — the large-scale theft of goods by a group of people who then try to sell the stolen merchandise online — and legislation banning the sale and ownership of ghost guns, which are untraceable by law enforcement since they have no serial numbers.