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Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward
oversight. As a result, it is not easy to generalize about current practices within the forensic science community. It is clear, however, that any approach to overhauling the existing system needs to address and help minimize the community’s current fragmentation and inconsistent practices.
Although the vast majority of criminal law enforcement is handled by state and local jurisdictions, these entities often are sorely lacking in the resources (money, staff, training, and equipment) necessary to promote and maintain strong forensic science laboratory systems. By comparison, federal programs are often much better funded and staffed. It is also noteworthy that the resources, the extent of services, and the amount of expertise that medical examiners and forensic pathologists can provide vary widely in different jurisdictions. As a result, the depth, reliability, and overall quality of substantive information arising from the forensic examination of evidence available to the legal system vary substantially across the country.
Lack of Mandatory Standardization, Certification, and Accreditation
The fragmentation problem is compounded because operational principles and procedures for many forensic science disciplines are not standardized or embraced, either between or within jurisdictions. There is no uniformity in the certification of forensic practitioners, or in the accreditation of crime laboratories. Indeed, most jurisdictions do not require forensic practitioners to be certified, and most forensic science disciplines have no mandatory certification programs. Moreover, accreditation of crime laboratories is not required in most jurisdictions. Often there are no standard protocols governing forensic practice in a given discipline. And, even when protocols are in place (e.g., SWG standards), they often are vague and not enforced in any meaningful way. In short, the quality of forensic practice in most disciplines varies greatly because of the absence of adequate training and continuing education, rigorous mandatory certification and accreditation programs, adherence to robust performance standards, and effective oversight.6 These shortcomings obviously pose a continuing and serious threat to the quality and credibility of forensic science practice.
The Broad Range of Forensic Science Disciplines
The term “forensic science” encompasses a broad range of forensic disciplines, each with its own set of technologies and practices. In other words, there is wide variability across forensic science disciplines with regard to
See, e.g., P.C. Giannelli. 2007. Wrongful convictions and forensic science: The need to regulate crime labs. 86 N.C. L. Rev. 163 (2007); B. Schmitt and J. Swickard. 2008. “Detroit Police Lab Shut Down After Probe Finds Errors.” Detroit Free Press. September 25.