The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office Crime Laboratory has cut its DNA testing turnaround time by half.

At the same time, scientists have increased the number of biology cases they handle each year, expanding DNA testing to property crimes, including burglary and auto theft.

One reason for the improvement: Ongoing federal dollars are paying for staff and equipment. Last month, the lab accepted another $100,000 federal grant.

The county has received federal money to address backlogs in DNA testing for several years, including a $1 million grant in 2009.

Maj. Kip Carver of the Sheriff’s Office said it’s paying off.

Since 2006, “violent crime in the county is down 38 percent. The crime lab is very much a part of that,” he said.

Year to date, it has taken scientists on average 43 days to process DNA recovered in violent crimes, compared with 96 days in 2010. It has taken 64 days to process DNA recovered from property crime scenes this year, compared with 156 days in 2010.

Those turnaround times keep improving, Carver said.

In August, scientists processed DNA from violent crimes in 29 days on average and from property crimes in 17 days. If there’s an urgent case, scientists can process a DNA sample in days, he said.

He attributes the improvements to a variety of reasons: more training and staff, technological advancements and a concerted effort by the Sheriff’s Office to work with other law enforcement agencies to reduce the turnaround time.

The Hennepin County Board also has invested in forensics, allocating $260,000 in 2010 to remodel the biology/DNA section of the sheriff’s crime lab, Sheriff Rich Stanek said.

“Our 38 percent decline in violent crime compared to 14 nationally for the same time period, that says something,” said Stanek, who credited a bigger investment in forensic science as one reason. “Any time you shorten the turnaround time for DNA, you have the opportunity to make a break in the case quicker. It’s one piece of evidence that provides leads for us to follow up on.”

‘Excellent relationship’

The crime lab’s Biology/DNA section includes nine forensic scientists who conduct testing for law enforcement agencies throughout the county.

Police say they’ve noticed the difference. “Our agency has seen that results from evidence submitted to the Hennepin County crime lab are coming back quicker. And that has allowed for more timely and successful resolution to criminal cases we investigate,” said Brooklyn Park police inspector Todd Milburn. “We have always had an excellent relationship with the [crime lab] and we are pleased to know that the crime lab is finding new ways to make the process more efficient.”

Prosecutors also have noticed the faster turnarounds. “That ... helps us when it comes to charging and it helps us when it comes to getting to trial more quickly,” said Chuck Laszewski, spokesman for the Hennepin County attorney’s office.

Nonviolent offenses, too

The crime lab has seen a steady increase in demand for DNA and biologic testing, Carver said.

The number of cases has jumped from 285 in 2006 to 1,387 last year.

A big part of that increase comes from a stronger emphasis on the investigation of property and nonviolent crimes. Crime-scene technicians swab stolen cars and the scene of burglaries looking for the perpetrators’ DNA and other evidence.

Why devote valuable science tools to nonviolent offenses?

“We truly believe there is a nexus over a period of time. The person who is committing the theft from an auto or a home burglary, they are going to graduate to something more violent,” Carver said.

Scientists test DNA profiles developed from crime-scene evidence, such as semen stains or blood.

They also test DNA profiles of individuals convicted of a crime; arrested persons when permitted by law; missing persons and unidentified human remains.

$3.8 million budget

The crime lab has a $3.8 million annual budget.

It’s is one of just three agencies in the state that tests DNA in criminal investigations. The other two are the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) and the Tri County Regional Forensic Laboratory, a joint venture among Anoka, Sherburne and Wright counties. The Tri County lab just started testing DNA last month.

The BCA handles a majority of the state’s DNA testing. The BCA received 4,976 cases in 2012. Its average turnaround time was 33 days.