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Several articles back, in reference to the National Institute of Justice/Urban Institute report on the use of DNA in property crime investigations, I said that it was about time that an independent research report confirmed what many us in the forensic DNA community already knew—forensic DNA technology is particularly well suited for the investigation and prosecution of property crimes. The recently released study by the National Academy of Sciences: Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: a Path Forward, is cause for a similar reaction.

For years now, the path of DNA’s integration into criminal justice systems throughout the world has been casually, albeit accurately, referred to as the “gold” standard for forensic science. The National Academy of Sciences’ thorough, two year study, designed to identify the needs of the forensic science community, has provided a scientific foundation to an otherwise anecdotal characterization. According to the report, “no forensic method”—with the notable exception of DNA analysis—“has been rigorously shown able to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.”

The goal of the study, however, was to recommend solutions to those issues which prevent other forensic technologies from providing the same level of confidence in their accuracy. The breadth and scope of the report, for a relatively short two year project, was an ambitious endeavor. The Congressional mandate was as follows:

  1. Assess the present and future resource needs of the forensic science community, to State and local crime labs, medical examiners, and coroners;
  2. Make recommendations for maximizing the use of forensic technologies and techniques to solve crimes, investigate deaths, and protect the public;
  3. Identify potential scientific advances that may assist law enforcement in using forensic technologies and techniques to protect the public;
  4. Make recommendations for programs that will increase the number of qualified forensic scientists and medical examiners available to work in public crime laboratories;
  5. Disseminate best practices and guidelines concerning the collection and analysis of forensic evidence to help ensure quality and consistency in the use of forensic technologies and techniques to solve crimes, investigate deaths, and protect the public;
  6. Examine the role of the forensic community in the homeland security mission;
  7. Examine interoperability of Automated Fingerprint Information Systems [AFIS]; and
  8. Examine additional issues pertaining to forensic science as determined by the Committee.

 

Having been the Executive Director of the National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence, a Department of Justice Commission having twice the amount of time and a significantly more limited task, I am sensitive to mandates which exceed both time and resources. This study provides an important look into issues which cause us to ask how much better our justice system can, more appropriately, must be.

But the nature, scope, and focus of the study, and by contrast what was not studied, highlights a disconnect that continues to hinder progress towards amore effective integration of forensic science into judicial systems. This was, by congressional mandate, a forensic science study, not a law enforcement study. The Committee’s focus on the quality of the science, laboratory infrastructure, admissibility, and reliability of forensic science are all components which few would disagree need to be examined. And the resulting analysis and recommendations here are a good start. But other than a few references which acknowledge the disparity of resources between jurisdictions, the need to connect law enforcement more directly to the problems we face in fully realizing the potential of forensic science fails to be recognized. Significantly, those resources must be allocated in a context where 72% of the police agencies in this country have fewer than 25 sworn officers and half have fewer than ten. In other words, we need to address a dynamic where we apply increasingly sophisticated technologies in a world where the person most responsible for preserving the evidence to which that technology will be applied, the first responder, is the proverbial “jack of all trades.”

The path to maximizing the potential of forensic science is not linear; we don’t start at one point, move to the next and end up with a better, more effective system. The study points out many areas which need attention, all at the same time. But the criminal dynamic which requires the use of forensic science in the first place is somewhat linear—it at least has a starting place. In the criminal justice system, it starts the moment someone is victimized with criminal intent and a crime scene is created. What happens at that point determines whether or not there will be any physical evidence to which an improved forensic technology can be applied. As such, the ultimate success of that technology will depend on the resources that we provide not just to scientists in lab coats but to officers in uniform.

Chris Asplen is a former Assistant U.S. Attorney and local prosecutor specializing in the prosecution of sex crime and child abuse.He was also formerly the Executive Director of the National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence for the U.S. Department of Justice and Director of the DNA Unit for the National District Attorneys Association. Currently, he consults with local, state, and foreign governments and law enforcement agencies on the use of forensic DNA technology. Chris is also a member of the Crime Victim Bar Association.

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