DNA database slowly growing
SPRINGFIELD – The business of trying to keep track of felons in Illinois by cataloging their genetic material is plugging along, slowly but surely.
Last Aug. 22, then-Gov. George Ryan signed a law requiring any person convicted of a felony to submit a sample of blood, hair or saliva to the Illinois State Police so their DNA could be extracted, a profile developed and the information entered into a database.
The idea behind the legislation was that if that person should commit a crime in the future and leave behind some genetic trace, he or she could be identified through that evidence.
Called CODIS – Combined DNA Index System – the database is similar to one the state police department already maintains with fingerprints. Fingerprints are believed to be unique to a person, and so is DNA, except in the case of identical twins, triplets, etc., who share the same DNA.
Karen Kucharik is the assistant director of the DNA indexing laboratory in Springfield, which is dedicated solely to analyzing DNA samples from offenders to develop a profile, then loading those profiles into the database.
Although other state police crime labs in Illinois can do the same work, the indexing lab was built to accommodate what she refers to as the "all-offender" legislation.
Since 1992, Illinois has kept track of the DNA of convicted sex offenders. About 20,400 of their profiles were on file prior to the enactment of the all-offender legislation. Another 1,200 sex-offender samples have been collected since Aug. 22, 2002.
From Aug. 22 through the end of May 2003, another approximately 20,000 samples of all other felony offenders – anyone from a person convicted of repeated driving under revocation to murder – have been collected.
Of that number, only about 15 percent have been entered into the index.
Master Sgt. Rick Hector, state police spokesman, said those profiles already indexed have led to arrests in other cases, but he couldn't say how many.
Those that have been entered have been analyzed by an outside contractor paid by the state to develop the profile from the blood sample. Because of sparse resources in the state budget, only a small percentage – Kucharik didn't say how many – are being "outsourced" for the development of the DNA profile by the Nashville, Tenn.-based Orchid Cellmark.
"Essentially, all we're doing is training now," Kucharik said of her staff at the Springfield indexing lab. "It's going well. Everybody is bright and well-educated. It will be several months until the staff is completely trained. I can't give you an exact timeline."
So, where are all those thousands of other samples?
"We processed them to a practical storage size and froze them," Kucharik said.
"It's not only we who had to get ready for this legislation, but the collection agencies as well. It took all of us a little time to ramp up. After the first of the year we began seeing a significant increase in samples," she said.
The responsibility for collecting the sample from someone sentenced to probation or conditional discharge, a form of probation without reporting regularly to an officer, falls to the probation department in each county.
Joe Gordon, director of Champaign County's probation office, said that given the number of felons sentenced to probation in Champaign County – about 45 per month – he decided to have the blood draws done in-house. (The number requiring blood draws is actually higher due to conditional discharge clients being included, but Gordon said his office doesn't keep track of the number on conditional discharge since the office doesn't monitor them.)
One night a week, a phlebotomist comes to the probation office and for a couple of hours does the draws with a probation officer present.
"You have to make sure it's Jimmy Smith that's being sampled," Gordon said of the need for an officer's presence.
The sample gets put into a kit supplied by the state police and is mailed off the next day to the Springfield lab.
For a person sentenced to the county jail, it's the sheriff's responsibility to get the blood sample drawn; the Department of Corrections is responsible for the samples of people sentenced to the penitentiary.
Some other area counties haven't even drawn the samples yet.
Thomas J. Fahey, presiding Vermilion County Circuit Court judge, said authorities there haven't started collecting yet, basically because of the cost of the mandate.
"It's getting to the point where you have court costs twice as much as the fines in some cases," said Fahey, who added that it's already difficult to get fees out of those who are convicted.
"We're kind of waiting for more direction from the state," he said. "This is just another unfunded mandate. But we'll comply when we get more direction from the state."
Ford County Probation Director Sally Wolf said her office only recently received the kits from the state police.
"We're in the process of setting up a court date to catch up with people," she said, adding Ford County only has about 25 to 30 felons a year sentenced to probation, so the numbers they have to track down are far from overwhelming.
Wolf said she plans to have a phlebotomist come to the courthouse to draw the samples of those felons already sentenced. Once that's accomplished, she intends to arrange future blood draws to be done by a doctor's office or the public health district. That will mean another $15 to $20 that the offender will likely have to pay on top of the $200 ordered by the legislation.
In Douglas County, Probation Director Paul Wisovaty said a few people have asked why they have to pay to have their blood drawn when they've already been ordered to pay the $200 fee. He sends his felony probation clients to the local clinic in Tuscola for the draws. Wisovaty said his office began collecting the samples in October.
In Piatt County, Probation Director Kyle Reynolds said his office began taking the samples as soon as the law passed. Blood samples are done at the public health department in Monticello and are scheduled to accommodate both the felon and the probation officer who must accompany that person.
Of the $200 fee, Gordon said $10 stays with the circuit clerk of the county and the rest goes to the state police.
Kucharik said it's too early to tell if that will cover the costs of developing the profiles and indexing them.
"I suppose it depends on how many felons pay it all," she said, noting that those sentenced usually have two years to pay their court costs, including the DNA fee.
When state police were indexing only sex offenders, the offenders paid $500, a payment that was up to a judge to impose.
"We only collected 5 percent of what we could have," Kucharik said. The newer legislation changed everyone's fee to $200, and she said it's too hard to tell now if it will be enough to support the whole program.
Kucharik said that fully staffed, the lab will have 10 forensic scientists, six evidence technicians, one administrative assistant, one systems analyst and one manager.
News-Gazette Staff Writer Tracy Moss contributed to this report.
You can reach Mary Schenk at 217-351-5313 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.