Guest Post: California Expands Rapid DNA Analysis System

Today's guest post from the California Department of Justice Jan Bashinski DNA Laboratory highlights the Rapid DNA Service (RADS) system, which has enabled the faster processing of DNA in newly collected rape kits in California. Here, the laboratory explores the impact of the program and the state's progress in expanding RADS to all counties.

In 2014, police in Alameda County suspected they had a serial sexual predator in their community. Two sexual assault crimes were committed in just one month, and police felt the pressure to stop a third crime. Through a new DNA analysis process, they were able to identify and arrest the suspect within 40 days of the first crime.

This new process, Rapid DNA Service (RADS), was developed by the California Department of Justice Bureau of Forensic Services (CALDOJ), and it is a paradigm shift in the processing of victim sexual assault kits. The RADS process allows for a portion of the sexual assault forensic evidence kit to be analyzed with results reported within 20 days from the start of batch analysis.

The high throughput processing of sexual assault evidence is achievable through a change to three main areas from the traditional workflow:

  • Sexual assault examiners triage evidence at the time of the exam. The examiner collects the required evidentiary items, but instead of placing all items in the full kit, up to three of the most probative swabs (as determined by the medical history) and a victim reference are separately packaged in a RADS envelope. The RADS envelope is sent directly to the crime laboratory where it immediately enters a high throughput analysis stream. 
  • Every sample goes straight to DNA analysis. Screening tests for seminal fluid and microscopic examinations for spermatozoa are no longer performed. 
  • Semi-automated processes are used to facilitate the handling of a larger volume of samples per batch and generate enhanced efficiencies. 

A pilot project for this new process was first implemented in 2011 for four California counties: Marin, Napa, Solano, and Sonoma. On January 1, 2016, the Sexual Assault Victim’s DNA Bill of Rights, passed by the California legislature in 2014, went into effect. This legislation states that any sexual assault forensic evidence “should” be submitted to a crime laboratory for DNA analysis. Although RADS was already operational and seven counties were already online with the program, the passage of this bill catalyzed CALDOJ to work towards expanding RADS to all of California’s 46 counties. As of February 2017, RADS has been implemented in 28 counties.

The RADS model is extremely successful: 93 percent of all cases have met the 20-day turnaround goal and 98 percent of the cases are completed within 30 days. As of February 2017, almost 2,000 cases have been completed, resulting in 684 CODIS profiles and 299 CODIS hits. This means that a CODIS profile is obtained 35 percent of the time, and 45 percent of the time the uploaded profile results in a CODIS hit. This all occurs within a month of the crime. If a RADS case does not result in a searchable CODIS profile, law enforcement is encouraged to submit additional items to the laboratory, such as the full kit or clothing.

If we consider the traditional model of having the full kit transported to the law enforcement agency, waiting for a request to be made for analysis, and waiting for the kit to be analyzed in the crime laboratory, it is likely that many of the kits from the approximately 2,000 RADS cases would have taken years to process. Sadly, some would never have been processed.

Analyzing sexual assault forensic evidence in a rapid manner provides numerous benefits in that it:

    • Provides the best resources for investigating the case;
    • Can quickly identify a potential suspect;
    • Helps to prevent future crimes;
    • Can exonerate the innocent;
    • Can link serial crimes; and
    • Prevents future backlogs.

RADS was initially implemented with minimal capital expenditure. By changing the workflow through the implementation of the RADS model, CALDOJ was able to analyze more sexual assault forensic evidence kits with the same amount of staff and minor equipment costs. However, as RADS continues to expand throughout California, additional laboratory staff will be a necessity in order to meet the increased demand. 

How long would it have taken to analyze the sexual assault forensic evidence kits from the 2014 Alameda County case using the traditional model? How many additional victims would there have been?

The answers to these questions are frightening. But, with a simple change in workflow, it is possible for crime laboratories to analyze sexual assault kits in a more rapid manner.

Crime laboratories throughout the country can implement a program of this nature as a means of analyzing all sexual assault forensic evidence and preventing future backlogs. As California shows, it can be commenced with minimal expenditures and successful results.

-California Department of Justice Jan Bashinski DNA Laboratory, February 15, 2017

END THE BACKLOG is an initiative of the Joyful Heart Foundation to shine a light on the backlog of untested rape kits throughout the United States. Our goal is to end this injustice by conducting groundbreaking research identifying the extent of the nation’s backlog and best practices for eliminating it, expanding the national dialogue on rape kit testing through increased public awareness, engaging communities and government agencies and officials and advocating for comprehensive rape kit reform legislation and policies at the local, state and federal levels. We urge you to learn more about the backlog, where it exists and why it matters. We invite you to take action and support efforts to test rape kits. Help us send the message that we must take rape seriously.

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