Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Forensics-reform legislation introduced to Congress

On January 25, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) introduced to the Senate the Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Reform Act. The bill aims to strengthen the criminal-justice system by promoting “standards and best practices and ensuring consistency, scientific validity, and accuracy” in forensic testing, analysis, identification, and comparisons.

The bill was designed to address the concerns regarding the field of forensic science that were raised in the February 2009 report released by the National Academy of Sciences.

“Everyone recognizes the need for forensic evidence that is accurate and reliable,” said Leahy in a January 25 press release. “With a new structure in place that draws on both criminal-justice expertise and scientific independence, I believe we will further ensure that only the most reliable forensic evidence is used in our criminal courts. We must provide law enforcement with reliable forensics capabilities, and we cannot allow innocent people to be wrongfully convicted based on faulty forensic evidence.”

The bill that was introduced had few changes from the draft legislation that was initially released on December 22, 2010.

Some of the Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Reform Act’s goals include:
• Establish an Office of Forensic Science within the Department of Justice that would oversee the standards and structure of the forensic-science system as established by the Act;
• Establish a Forensic Science Board that would consist of scientists, practitioners, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and other stakeholders to make recommendations in research priorities, standards, and best practices.
• Establish committees of scientists to be overseen by the National Institute of Standards and Technology that will examine each individual forensic science discipline to determine research needs and help set uniform standards;
• Require that all forensic science laboratories receiving federal funding be accredited according to rigorous standards set by the Forensic Science Board and the Office of Forensic Science, and that forensic scientists meet basic proficiency, education, and training requirements for certification;
• Promote foundational and innovative peer-reviewed scientific research that will strengthen the forensic sciences.

“The bill aims to carefully balance the competing considerations that are so important to getting a review of forensics right,” said Leahy in an official statement. “It also capitalizes on existing expertise and structures, rather than calling for the creation of a costly new agency. It seeks to proceed modestly and cost effectively, with ample oversight, checks, and controls.”

You can download a PDF copy of the legislation here.

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