Earlier this week, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), a prestigious research organization that advises Congress, released a long-awaited report detailing comprehensive recommendations to improve the practice and use of forensic science in the American criminal justice system. The report concludes that forensic labs and the system of oversight of forensic science are in dire need of broad structural changes to ensure reliability, and put forensic evidence on a sound scientific footing. This report was the culmination of an ambitious two year study, conducted by a NAS committee at the direction of Congress, of the current state of forensic science. This committee was charged with, among other tasks, assessing the accuracy and reliability of forensic testing and evidence used in criminal trials and investigations; identifying systemic problems with the practice and use of forensic science; and recommending best practices and solutions to improve the reliability of forensic evidence utilized in the criminal justice system.
Given the critical importance of forensic testing and evidence in the investigation, apprehension, and conviction of criminals, as well as the exoneration of the innocent, the task assigned to the National Academy of Sciences was a critical one. The use of forensic evidence in the criminal justice system has skyrocketed in recent decades, and unfortunately, so have the instances in which faulty forensic evidence contributed to the wrongful convictions of innocent people. Despite the reputation of forensic science as being a reliable and accurate means of excluding certain suspects and identifying others, often fostered by popular shows such as CSI, forensic science is often deeply flawed and inaccurate -- unreliable or false forensic evidence led to the wrongful conviction of over half of the first two hundred people exonerated by DNA evidence in the United States.
The findings of the NAS are consistent with this fact. Their report concludes that forensic science is rife with problems, including a lack of thorough research and testing to establish the reliability of many forensic disciplines, under-staffed and under-funded forensic labs, a lack of adequate educational and training programs for forensic scientists, a lack of mandatory certification requirements for analysts and accreditation programs for labs, and effective oversight of analysts and forensic facilities. These systemic problems, among others identified by the NAS, "pose a continuing and serious threat to the quality and credibility of forensic science practice." The report recommends the establishment of a National Institute of Forensic Science to establish and enforce best practices for forensic science professionals and laboratories; and standards for the mandatory accreditation of labs and certification of analysts. NAS recommends this new institute fund additional research in the various forensic science disciplines and research on the possible sources and effects of bias and human error in the practice of forensic science, as well as funding to assist all forensic laboratories in the states to become independent from law enforcement agencies.
I commend the NAS for their exhaustive review of forensic science in our criminal justice system, and their recommendations to re-structure the way forensic science is practiced in the United States. In 2008, the Justice Project released, Improving the Practice and Use of Forensic Science: A Policy Review, which offers recommendations and solutions for improving the practices and standards of forensic science. The review includes information on current forensic practices, case studies, states that have enacted reforms in forensic analysis, and a model policy. All of the Justice Project's recommendations -- improved oversight and standards, programs to prevent bias and human error in the practice of forensic science, independence from law enforcement agencies, improved training and certification programs, as well as additional funding and resources, are consistent with the recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences.
It is my sincerest hope that now, with the body of research and guidance provided by the National Academy of Sciences, the federal government and the states will begin to take critical steps towards improving the practice and use of forensic science in criminal trials. Ensuring the best and most accurate evidence makes it into the courtroom is absolutely critical in maintaining fairness and accuracy in the criminal justice system.
John F. Terzano is President of The Justice Project, a nonpartisan organization that works to increase fairness and accuracy in the criminal justice system.