STRENGTHENING FORENSIC SCIENCE IN THE UNITED STATES: A PATH FORWARD
Recommendation 1: To promote the development of forensic science into a mature field of multidisciplinary research and practice, founded on the systematic collection and analysis of relevant data, Congress should establish and appropriate funds for an independent federal entity, the National Institute of Forensic Science (NIFS). NIFS should have a full-time administrator and an advisory board with expertise in research and education, the forensic science disciplines, physical and life sciences, forensic pathology, engineering, information technology, measurements and standards, testing and evaluation, law, national security, and public policy. NIFS should focus on
- (a) establishing and enforcing best practices for forensic science professionals and laboratories;
- (b) establishing standards for the mandatory accreditation of forensic science laboratories and the mandatory certification of forensic scientists and medical examiners/forensic pathologists—and identifying the entity/entities that will develop and implement accreditation and certification;
- (c) promoting scholarly, competitive peer-reviewed research and technical development in the forensic science disciplines and forensic medicine;
- (d) developing a strategy to improve forensic science research and educational programs, including forensic pathology;
- (e) establishing a strategy, based on accurate data on the forensic science community, for the efficient allocation of available funds to give strong support to forensic methodologies and practices in addition to DNA analysis;
- (f) funding state and local forensic science agencies, independent research projects, and educational programs as recommended in this report, with conditions that aim to advance the credibility and reliability of the forensic science disciplines;
- (g) overseeing education standards and the accreditation of forensic science programs in colleges and universities;
- (h) developing programs to improve understanding of the forensic science disciplines and their limitations within legal systems; and
- (i) assessing the development and introduction of new technologies in forensic investigations, including a comparison of new technologies with former ones.
Recommendation 2: The National Institute of Forensic Science (NIFS), after reviewing established standards such as ISO 17025, and in consultation with its advisory board, should establish standard terminology to be used in reporting on and testifying about the results of forensic science investigations. Similarly, it should establish model laboratory reports for different forensic science disciplines and specify the minimum information that should be included. As part of the accreditation and certification processes, laboratories and forensic scientists should be required to utilize model laboratory reports when summarizing the results of their analyses.
Recommendation 3: Research is needed to address issues of accuracy, reliability, and validity in the forensic science disciplines. The National Institute of Forensic Science (NIFS) should competitively fund peer-reviewed research in the following areas:
- (a) Studies establishing the scientific bases demonstrating the validity of forensic methods.
- (b) The development and establishment of quantifiable measures of the reliability and accuracy of forensic analyses. Studies of the reliability and accuracy of forensic techniques should reflect actual practice on realistic case scenarios, averaged across a representative sample of forensic scientists and laboratories. Studies also should establish the limits of reliability and accuracy that analytic methods can be expected to achieve as the conditions of forensic evidence
vary. The research by which measures of reliability and accuracy are determined should be peer reviewed and published in respected scientific journals.
- (c) The development of quantifiable measures of uncertainty in the conclusions of forensic analyses.
- (d) Automated techniques capable of enhancing forensic technologies.
Recommendation 4: To improve the scientific bases of forensic science examinations and to maximize independence from or autonomy within the law enforcement community, Congress should authorize and appropriate incentive funds to the National Institute of Forensic Science for allocation to state and local jurisdictions for the purpose of removing all public forensic laboratories and facilities from the administrative control of law enforcement agencies or prosecutors’ offices.
Recommendation 5: The National Institute of Forensic Science (NIFS) should encourage research programs on human observer bias and sources of human error in forensic examinations. Such programs might include studies to determine the effects of contextual bias in forensic practice (e.g., studies to determine whether and to what extent the results of forensic analyses are influenced by knowledge regarding the background of the suspect and the investigator’s theory of the case). In addition, research on sources of human error should be closely linked with research conducted to quantify and characterize the amount of error. Based on the results of these studies, and in consultation with its advisory board, NIFS should develop standard operating procedures (that will lay the foundation for model protocols) to minimize, to the greatest extent reasonably possible, potential bias and sources of human error in forensic practice. These standard operating procedures should apply to all forensic analyses that may be used in litigation.
Recommendation 6: To facilitate the work of the National Institute of Forensic Science (NIFS), Congress should authorize and appropriate funds to NIFS to work with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), in conjunction with government laboratories, universities, and private laboratories, and in consultation with Scientific Working Groups, to develop tools for advancing measurement, validation, reliability, information sharing, and proficiency testing in forensic science and to establish protocols for forensic examinations, methods, and practices. Standards should reflect best practices and serve as accreditation tools for laboratories and as guides for the education, training, and certification of professionals. Upon completion of its work, NIST and its partners should report findings and recommendations to NIFS for further dissemination and implementation.
Recommendation 7: Laboratory accreditation and individual certification of forensic science professionals should be mandatory, and all forensic science professionals should have access to a certification process. In determining appropriate standards for accreditation and certification, the National Institute of Forensic Science (NIFS) should take into account established and recognized international standards, such as those published by the International Organization for Standardization. No person (public or private) should be allowed to practice in a forensic science discipline or testify as a forensic science professional without certification. Certification requirements should include, at a minimum, written examinations, supervised practice, proficiency testing, continuing education, recertification procedures, adherence to a code of ethics, and effective disciplinary procedures. All laboratories and facilities (public or private) should be accredited, and all forensic science professionals should be certified, when eligible, within a time period established by NIFS.
Recommendation 8: Forensic laboratories should establish routine quality assurance and quality control procedures to ensure the accuracy of forensic analyses and the work of forensic practitioners. Quality control procedures should be designed to identify mistakes, fraud, and bias; confirm the continued validity and reliability of standard operating procedures and protocols; ensure that best practices are being followed; and correct procedures and protocols that are found to need improvement.
Recommendation 9: The National Institute of Forensic Science (NIFS), in consultation with its advisory board, should establish a national code of ethics for all forensic science disciplines and encourage individual societies to incorporate this national code as part of their professional code of ethics. Additionally, NIFS should explore mechanisms of enforcement for those forensic scientists who commit serious ethical violations. Such a code could be enforced through a certification process for forensic scientists.
Recommendation 10: To attract students in the physical and life sciences to pursue graduate studies in multidisciplinary fields critical to forensic science practice, Congress should authorize and appropriate funds to the National Institute of Forensic Science (NIFS) to work with appropriate organizations and educational institutions to improve and develop graduate education programs designed to cut across organizational, programmatic, and disciplinary boundaries. To make these programs appealing to potential students, they must include attractive scholarship and fellowship offerings. Emphasis should be placed on developing and improving research methods and methodologies applicable to forensic science practice and on funding research programs to attract research universities and students in fields
relevant to forensic science. NIFS should also support law school administrators and judicial education organizations in establishing continuing legal education programs for law students, practitioners, and judges.
Recommendation 11: To improve medicolegal death investigation:
- (a) Congress should authorize and appropriate incentive funds to the National Institute of Forensic Science (NIFS) for allocation to states and jurisdictions to establish medical examiner systems, with the goal of replacing and eventually eliminating existing coroner systems. Funds are needed to build regional medical examiner offices, secure necessary equipment, improve administration, and ensure the education, training, and staffing of medical examiner offices. Funding could also be used to help current medical examiner systems modernize their facilities to meet current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention–recommended autopsy safety requirements.
- (b) Congress should appropriate resources to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and NIFS, jointly, to support research, education, and training in forensic pathology. NIH, with NIFS participation, or NIFS in collaboration with content experts, should establish a study section to establish goals, to review and evaluate proposals in these areas, and to allocate funding for collaborative research to be conducted by medical examiner offices and medical universities. In addition, funding, in the form of medical student loan forgiveness and/or fellowship support, should be made available to pathology residents who choose forensic pathology as their specialty.
- (c) NIFS, in collaboration with NIH, the National Association of Medical Examiners, the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators, and other appropriate professional organizations, should establish a Scientific Working Group (SWG) for forensic pathology and medicolegal death investigation. The SWG should develop and promote standards for best practices, administration, staffing, education, training, and continuing education for competent death scene investigation and postmortem examinations. Best practices should include the utilization of new technologies such as laboratory testing for the molecular basis of diseases and the implementation of specialized imaging techniques.
- (d) All medical examiner offices should be accredited pursuant to NIFS-endorsed standards within a timeframe to be established by NIFS.
- (e) All federal funding should be restricted to accredited offices that meet NIFS-endorsed standards or that demonstrate significant and
measurable progress in achieving accreditation within prescribed deadlines.
- (f) All medicolegal autopsies should be performed or supervised by a board-certified forensic pathologist. This requirement should take effect within a timeframe to be established by NIFS, following consultation with governing state institutions.
Recommendation 12: Congress should authorize and appropriate funds for the National Institute of Forensic Science (NIFS) to launch a new broad-based effort to achieve nationwide fingerprint data interoperability. To that end, NIFS should convene a task force comprising relevant experts from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the major law enforcement agencies (including representatives from the local, state, federal, and, perhaps, international levels) and industry, as appropriate, to develop
- (a) standards for representing and communicating image and minutiae data among Automated Fingerprint Identification Systems. Common data standards would facilitate the sharing of fingerprint data among law enforcement agencies at the local, state, federal, and even international levels, which could result in more solved crimes, fewer wrongful identifications, and greater efficiency with respect to fingerprint searches; and
- (b) baseline standards—to be used with computer algorithms—to map, record, and recognize features in fingerprint images, and a research agenda for the continued improvement, refinement, and characterization of the accuracy of these algorithms (including quantification of error rates).
Recommendation 13: Congress should provide funding to the National Institute of Forensic Science to prepare, in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, forensic scientists and crime scene investigators for their potential roles in managing and analyzing evidence from events that affect homeland security, so that maximum evidentiary value is preserved from these unusual circumstances and the safety of these personnel is guarded. This preparation also should include planning and preparedness (to include exercises) for the interoperability of local forensic personnel with federal counterterrorism organizations.
STRENGTHENING THE NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF JUSTICE
Recommendation 1: The committee recommends that Congress provide for the requisite independence and authority of the National Institute of Justice
(NIJ) while retaining its organizational placement within the Office of Justice Programs and the U.S. Department of Justice. Among the key issues to be considered in pursuit of this goal are a statutory advisory board, a set term of office and minimum qualifications for the NIJ director, and clear authority for NIJ to make awards and control its budget and resources.
Recommendation 2: To strengthen its science mission, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) should direct its efforts toward building a body of cumulative knowledge that will assist the criminal justice field in its effort to prevent and control crime and improve the criminal justice system; sponsoring research that will improve and upgrade current scientific methods used to study crime; and supporting new areas that have heretofore been neglected due to NIJ’s incapacity to commit resources required to support projects of long duration, great complexity, and substantial expense. To improve NIJ’s ability to support research, the committee recommends that Congress remove responsibility for forensic capacity-building programs and reinstate them in other U.S. Department of Justice and Office of Justice Program agencies, such as the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Community Oriented Policing Services office, that have a clearly defined technical assistance mission, are closely linked to state and local criminal justice agencies, and have larger financial reserves to draw on.
Recommendation 3: The National Institute of Justice should undertake efforts to nurture and grow the pool of researchers involved in criminal justice research as well as activities that support the research endeavor itself. These efforts should include increasing the resources devoted to supporting graduate education for persons pursuing a career in criminology and criminal justice studies and other disciplines engaged in research and teaching on criminal justice topics, such as the Graduate Research Fellowship Program and the W.E.B. Du Bois Program, and enhancing the Data Archive Program.
Recommendation 4: The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) should revise its research operations to allow for greater transparency, consistency, timeliness, and appropriate involvement of the research and practitioner communities. In particular, NIJ should make information about its research operations and activities publicly available, easily understood, and consistent with the highest standards found in other high-quality federal research agencies.
Recommendation 5: The National Institute of Justice should measure the influence of its programs on research and practice and assess the quality of operations and program-level technical and managerial matters.
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