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Meaningful Oversight is Necessary for Reliable Forensic Science

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Concerns about the validity of forensic evidence have come to the fore in recent years following a series of wrongful convictions and other scandals across the country. The National Academies of Science (NAS) identified a number of systemic flaws that demand attention in their 2009 report Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward. Yet today, hardly any states have laws providing meaningful oversight of the forensic laboratories that analyze crucial evidence upon which many criminal cases depend.

In California, this lack of lab oversight was highlighted when San Diego County sheriff's deputies began questioning test results. The errors they found eventually led to a review of hundreds of toxicology tests done by a private lab. A total of eleven people were released from jail, and at least seven of them saw their criminal cases dismissed. Mistakes such as these threaten to seriously undermine confidence in the criminal justice system.

A report released in late 2009 by the California Crime Lab Review Task Force, An Examination of Forensic Science in California, made some recommendations for improvements. For example, The Task Force highlighted the importance of requiring accreditation of forensic labs, as well as the need for forensic analysts to be certified by relevant professional organizations. The perennial need for additional funding was also emphasized. By mandating both employee certification and lab accreditation and by increasing funding, the state will improve forensic practice in the state. But the integrity of forensic evidence is too important to outsource oversight and quality standards entirely to professional trade organizations. Accreditation and professional certification are important first steps, but the responsibility for setting and ensuring quality standards, objectivity and independence ultimately resides with the state itself. A full solution will need to include more structural reform.

One of these crucial steps is the creation of an independent oversight commission, staffed and funded to more closely supervise the work of forensic labs. This type of commission could set statewide quality standards that could build on the baseline afforded by professional associations, and could provide more rigorous, ongoing oversight to ensure that labs actually operate in a way that is consistent with the standards that exist on paper. Shifting forensic labs out from under the control of law enforcement agencies would address the subtle biases that can emerge when forensic workers see themselves on the law enforcement "team" instead of dispassionate and objective scientists. These safeguards and others are outlined in The Justice Project's policy review Improving the Practices and Use of Forensic Science, and will help to ensure the objectivity and reliability of forensic testing and analysis.

Reliable forensic science is vital, and by making sure that the evidence is objective and valid, we will have a more efficient criminal justice system. Fixing these problems on the front end will reduce the chances that the state will have to spend more money and resources to correct the mistakes and injustices caused by forensic errors. At a time when California, along with the rest of the nation, is dealing with financial restraints, it is all the more imperative that legislators in all states make these improvements a priority. Forensic science can be a powerful tool, and meaningful structural reform is the only way to ensure that the best science is used in our courts.

John F. Terzano is President of The Justice Project, a nonpartisan organization that works to increase fairness and accuracy in the criminal justice system.