Following up on my last post, in which I asked why there were still no national standards for forensic science five years after the National Academy of Sciences’2009 report Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States, and with scandal after scandal in U.S. crime labs all over the country, there may be light on the horizon.  On January 10, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ)  and the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) announced the formation of the National Commission on Forensic Science.

According to the announcement issued by DOJ and NIST:

Members of the commission will work to improve the practice of forensic science by developing guidance concerning the intersections between forensic science and the criminal justice system. The commission also will work to develop policy recommendations for the U.S. Attorney General, including uniform codes for professional responsibility and requirements for formal training and certification.

John P. Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said that the Commission “will help ensure that the forensic sciences are supported by the most rigorous standards available—a foundational requirement in a nation built on the credo of ‘justice for all.’ ”

The formation of the Commission could be the a significant milestone in the march toward the use of real science and defensible national standards in forensic labs.  But it may be limited in what it can achieve just by its creation and structure: it is not a body created by Congress with power to come up with and implement standards or to regulate anything.  Rather it is a federal advisory committee, formed under the Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972.  (A quick primer on the Act is here.)   It investigates and debate designated topics, and then reports its recommendations to the relevant federal department(s) that formed it (in this case, the DOJ and NIST).  Those agencies could choose to embrace and follow, or could choose to reject, some, all, or none of the Commission’s suggestions.

Still, this is a hopeful sign that we might be heading in the right direction.  At the very least, we will see a national conversation between the very large number of Committee members; they come from a variety of backgrounds in government, science, the legal system, and elsewhere.  See the list of more than thirty Commission members at the bottom of this announcement.

I hope readers will weigh in on the following question: realistically, what will come from the Committee?  Will the government adopt these recommendations?  Will the recommendations include national standards to regulate forensic testing, assure quality control, and the like? In the end, will the work that you foresee coming from the Commission improve the U.S.’s largely unregulated system?

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  1. […] failedevidence.wordpress.com – Following up on my last post, in which I asked why there were still no national standards for forensic science five years after the National Academy of Sciences’2009 report Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States , and with scandal after scandal in U.S. crime labs all over the country, there may be light on the horizon.  On January 10, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ)  and the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) announced the formation of the National Commission on Forensic Science. […]

  2. I see an even more significant imbalance; there are lots of lawyers, judges and academics . . but each of the various disciplines within the forensic sciences are not represented by voting members of the commission. These are the people who actually do the work, yet there is little if any representation. It is sort of like having a group of politicians hammer out the guiding standards for a plumber, or a group of radio personalities decide what ethics should be employed by attorneys. There is a smattering of de facto (non-voting) representatives of disciplines, but an obvious lack of voting members.

    The problem with not allowing the actual bench working professionals to be involved is that the commission will be basing decisions and recommendations without voting input from the folks most familiar with the individual disciplines. Professors, academics, lawyers and judges love to pontificate on what they want, but generally make those pronouncements in this kind of forum from ignorance. There needs to be actual bench working practitioners involved as VOTING members of this commission . . and far, far fewer lawyers.

  3. iulaforensic says:

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  4. Nikki says:

    “Will the recommendations include national standards to regulate forensic testing, assure quality control, and the like?

    Why wouldn’t the U.S. want national standards? Having national standards would help tremendously in criminal cases for justice being served. If the nation has specific standards in place assuring quality control then little chances results would be inaccurate. Realistically, humans make mistakes technological resources do fail; part of the standards could be sending evidence to another state for analysis verification to prove to positive-negative results

    • Nikki, thanks for the comment. All I can say is that the prospect of national standards has been resisted by many in forensics for a long time, even though many people in the industry see that it is necessary, and it is the future, like it or not. In the aftermath of the 2009 NAS report, resistance was the only reaction from the law enforcement community; while some in the forensic sciences wanted to move in the direction of national standards, those with the “ownership” of the labs — police departments and prosecution offices — usually did not. So, even though national standards make all the sense in the world, we are only now moving toward them, very tentatively.

  5. It looks like there are three defense attorneys out of the entire group; 15 police/prosecutors/judges; 10 academics; and the others include VA Dir. Of Forensics and should be counted as police; NIST – maybe pro-govt., maybe not, but I suspect half of the academics are pro-police; and not one independent defense attorney, although Neufeld and Leighton will represent defense. So, it boils down to 1% of applicants chosen to represent defense. And, how many of the committee actually have courtroom knowledge and a science background? Aren’t many academics too far removed from real life anyway? I hope the committee makes the necessary changes, but I’m not holding my breath.

    • Diane, I understand your skepticism. The group is heavy with police, prosecutors and judges. But at least some of the academics will, I think, move the enterprise in the direction of respect for real science. My fear is that, even assuming that the Commission comes up with good recommendations, that is all they are: recommendations, not rules. Nothing requires the Attorney General to adopt them, and at this point there is no stick that the federal government can use to get state and local labs to go along with the recommendations if they don’t want to do that. In a situation in which the federal government wants compliance with some national norms, the federal government has sometimes resorted to the threat of withdrawing federal money and grants from states and localities. This is how the federal government got the states to lower the driving while intoxicated threshold to .08 in states that had set the threshold higher. In effect, the federal government said, “fine, State, you can pass any law on this you want that sets the level at .10, or .12, or whatever. But if you want your federal highway money, you need to lower the threshold to .08.” As my friend Tina pointed out to me in a conversation yesterday, the federal government can’t do that here: there simply isn’t enough money that goes into forensic science from the federal government that cutting it off could be any kind of credible threat.

      Thanks for the comment.

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