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June 3, 2022

What following the science might mean in when it comes to the actual laboratories of criminal justice

This interesting new Hill commentary, authored by Michael Kusluski and headlined "An easy win for criminal justice reform: Independent crime labs," highlights just one not so sexy, but still very important frontier for criminal justice reform. I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

The 2009 National Academy of Sciences’ report on crime labs identified 13 areas for improvement.  While significant progress has been made, action on one recommendation has languished: to remove all public forensic laboratories and facilities from the administrative control of law enforcement agencies or prosecutors’ offices.

Most crime labs still operate under law enforcement control. Discussions of potential bias, however, distract from the larger problem: that police and prosecutors’ offices are simply not qualified to operate forensic laboratories.

The real issue is not bias but the delivery of good science.  Most publicly funded forensic laboratories (even those with a civilian lab director) ultimately report to individuals with no background in science.  This control may be as simple as setting budgets and priorities, but often involves setting policies and procedures.  In many jurisdictions, reserving crime scene (or even laboratory) positions for police personnel — no science degree required — still exists.  While some critics worry that forensic scientists could have their opinion swayed in one case or another, decisions are being made by nonscientists who influence millions of cases annually....

There is precedent for independent crime labs.  Medical examiners’ laboratories have always operated separately from the police.  The state forensic laboratories in Virginia and Alabama have been independent for decades.  A number of quasi-governmental and private (mostly DNA) forensic labs operate around the country, processing backlogged or specialty evidence.

The independent public crime labs that do exist typically enjoy department-level status rather than the bureau- or division-level status they would have under police departments.  Several jurisdictions (mostly municipalities) have opted to transition their police labs to independent agencies in recent years.  Unfortunately, they have often waited until the crime lab was in trouble or the jurisdiction was strapped for cash.

Because most forensic analyses take place at the state and local level, these changes will largely depend on state legislators, who may be reluctant to appear anti-police.  But the American National Standards Institute-National Accreditation Board (ANAB), which accredits most crime labs in the United States could require labs to move toward independence, forcing legislators to act.  Similarly, the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) could withhold future funding for labs that are not independent.  Since forensic labs have become accustomed to federal funding for overtime and backlog reduction, this would be an effective incentive for change.

June 3, 2022 at 09:14 PM | Permalink


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