The National Commission on Forensic Science was created in 2013, a partnership between the U.S. Department of Justice and forensic scientists. Its 13th meeting is underway today. Case report thoroughness and statistical statements by experts in court are on the agenda.
But this will be its final meeting. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced this morning that the Trump administration is taking stock of the state of forensic science aside from the Obama-era reevaluation of the criminal justice system embodied by the NCFS.
“We applaud the professionalism of the National Commission on Forensic Science and look forward to building on the contribution it has made in this crucial field,” said Sessions, in a statement. “As we decide how to move forward, we bear in mind that the Department is just one piece of the larger criminal justice system and that the vast majority of forensic science is practiced by state and local forensic laboratories and is used by state and local prosecutors.”
The Justice Department is taking a different approach, as part of its Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, announced upon Sessions’ confirmation as head of the DOJ in February.
A senior forensic advisor will be appointed to the federal agency, who will be expected to hear out forensic stakeholders and advise the DOJ leadership.
The DOJ will also conduct a massive needs assessment of crime laboratories, including: workloads, backlogs, staffing levels and equipment needs. The report will be given to Congress.
The DOJ is seeking public comment how to improve forensic laboratories nationwide.
The NCFS had prepared a report that seemed to anticipate the end of the group, titled “Reflecting Back—Looking Toward the Future.” The group, which included prosecutors and defense attorneys, judges, academics and law enforcement officers, said it had the broadest scope of all agencies tasked with re-assessing forensic science.
“NCFS serves a critical function because it—like no other existing entity—represents the broadest range of interests involved in, affected by, or able to improve forensic evidence,” they write. “The Commission has been successful in identifying policies that will advance forensic science. It is critical to continue a path forward to provide further exploration into the questions outlined in this report, as well as those that have not yet been considered.”
The group was one of the linchpins in the “forensic overhaul”—the reconsideration of much of forensic science, how it is presented in the criminal justice system and how some pieces of evidence need to be more empirically quantified. Such reconsiderations really kicked off in 2009, with the major National Academy of Sciences report titled “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.” That report blasted some established practices, including hair analysis, bitemarks and eyewitness testimony. Another report, by the President’s Council of Advirors on Science and Technology (PCAST), similarly criticized the use of some disciplines in forensic science.
The NCFS produced 45 documents and recommendations in three years of work, which encompassed 600 public comments. But the commission itself had voted against its own renewal at its January meeting, by a 16-15 vote.
Even during the last meeting, some of the arguments persisted. The agenda included reports on how much of the evidence record should be included in the case record, and also on recommendations of how statistical statements should be provided by experts. The panel debated whether a ballistics expert can definitively link a shell casing to a firearm, without population statistics.
“The state of things can well be improved upon,” said Matt Redle, an NCFS member and prosecutor from Wyoming.