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?