Van Hollen: Ready to Tackle the DNA Backlog

By: Brock Bergey Email
By: Brock Bergey Email

Wisconsin has a new top cop. Republican J.B. Van Hollen took the oath of office Wednesday at the capitol. As Attorney General, Van Hollen heads up the state Justice Department--which oversees the state's crime lab. As we've reported, DNA evidence is piling up at the lab, creating a backlog in the system. Van Hollen says that's not acceptable, but admits there's no quick fix.

Van Hollen is Wisconsin's 43rd Attorney General. The former U.S. Attorney replaces Democrat Peg Lautenschlager who lost re-election.

"I'm very excited about getting into the formality of the office and allowing myself to get to work," says Van Hollen.

Van Hollen's most-publicized challenge is reducing the backlog of DNA tests at the state crime lab. More than 1,700 cases have yet to be touched.

"We knew it was a big problem, these numbers point out it was a much bigger problem that we anticipated," he says.

According to the Attorney General's Office, DNA submissions grew 91-percent from 2003 to 2006.

"Certainly we need to create new staff positions," says Van Hollen.

But finding the money to do that, he says, involves bipartisan cooperation. "A lot of it is going to decide what the legislature, the governor and I decide are the best things to do budgetary first."

"There is no question it helps exonerate the innocent and convict the guilty," says Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard.

He calls the DNA backlog "a bottleneck" in the justice system. Blanchard says the pile-up in the lab carries over to the courtroom.

"We have to prioritize. Certainly the more serious crimes, we have to look at them that much sooner," says Blanchard.

Case in point, the arrest of Antonio Pope last month. Police say DNA tied the Madison man to two sexual assault cases. DNA samples from both crimes moved to the front of the line for review--police calling it a matter of public safety.

"Prioritization can be very subjective, that's why I'm a little bit worried about setting rules that say we're going to prioritize this type of case and not that kind of case," says Van Hollen.

Van Hollen says now it's time to play catch up, but the end result he says involves much more.

"Then we're going to have the issue of staying caught up when we have growing numbers coming in all the time," he adds.

Van Hollen isn't talking staff size specifics at the crime lab right now. But, during his campaign he touted the idea of outsourcing some DNA testing or giving some of the state's larger counties the resources to do its own testing.

Other priorities for Van Hollen include reducing crime in Milwaukee, the state's largest city; cracking down on meth production in the state; and tracking down Internet criminals.

Van Hollen defeated Democrat Kathleen Falk in a close general election race.

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