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Justice Department will require crime lab accreditation by 2020

The Justice Department has announced that it will eventually require the crime labs that it contracts with to be accredited. While this is encouraging, a review of the way in which crime labs are accredited and the quality of forensic evidence that is used by courts suggests we have a long way to go before many of the problems in this area are solved.

Accreditation is potentially an improvement, but the standards today that apply to most crime lab accreditation are problematic. These accreditation standards are set by organizations that are linked to professional forensics associations. While the standards on paper are probably better than nothing, they are often not very rigorous. In addition, the enforcement of the standards that exist is often weak or entirely lacking.

An equally problematic issue is the role of judges as the persons responsible for determining whether scientific evidence is admissible. Few have the proper scientific training and backgrounds that would allow them to make accurate determinations.

There is also a tremendous amount of inertia within the criminal justice system that militates against change. The emergence of DNA evidence and the true scientific rigor it could bring into the courtroom has shown-up the mediocre quality of much forensic evidence.

Incidents involving so-called arson and bite mark analysis have called many cases into question. The validity of much of this "evidence" is so questionable that it is shocking that it has ever been permitted to be used.

And this is a real worry. Many judges have always permitted such questionable evidence and many will be more impressed by that than the fact that genuine scientific studies have shown that something like bite-mark analysis have virtually no value and are unsupportable scientifically.

A real problem is also that prosecutors and the state, which often operates the crime labs, have little incentive to improve their quality and rigor, as they prefer much of the sloppy results because the labs are often incented to rule in their favor. Some labs are only paid when a conviction is obtained, so they have no incentive to find a substance is not an illegal drug.

Real reform is likely to take national legislation. But that is unlikely to occur anytime soon.

Source: washingtonpost.com, "Forensic science reform is finally here. But will we get it right?" Radley Balko, December 16, 2016

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