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Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Advances Forensic Science Bill with Bipartisan Support

By Steve Pierson posted 04-10-2014 09:35

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee advanced S. 2022, the Forensic Science and Standards Act of 2014, in a unanimous voice vote on April 9. The bill, sponsored only by the committee's Chairman, Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), was amended based on negotiations between Republican and Democratic staff. The bill's broad aim is to "establish a national forensic science research program to improve, expand, and coordinate federal research in forensic sciences." In early March, ASA President-Elect David Morganstein sent Chairman Rockefeller a letter of support for his forensic science reform efforts (just as 2012 ASA President Bob Rodriguez sent a letter of support when Chairman Rockefeller introduced his forensic science reform bill in 2012.)   

Reflecting the extensive negotiations between the two parties on this bill, the amount of time the committee spent considering the bill in its April 9 executive session was only minutes. (See minute 36:00 of this video.) Ranking Member John Thune (R-SD) made these comments in his opening comments:
On the forensic science bill, I do want to underscore one point that I think we’d all agree on: Our efforts, as the Senate’s science committee, to enhance forensic science should not be interpreted as questioning the integrity or professionalism of the law enforcement officials, forensic science practitioners, and prosecutors who are working hard every day in our criminal justice system – most of whom work in our states, and not for the federal government.

The overwhelming majority of these men and women are working diligently to achieve justice – which includes both the conviction of the guilty and the exoneration of the innocent. In this pursuit, we want them to be supported by the best available science, and we need them to be part of the process. Mr. Chairman, along these lines, I appreciate the many changes you have made to the bill to ensure collaboration with the forensic science community.
Later in the hearing (minute 41:10), Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) expressed concerns from the NH forensic science lab of unfunded mandates and standards. (She was attorney general for NH.) She, like Thune, acknowledged the changes to the bill to take into account concerns of state and local crime labs and expressed hope that the discussions continue.

In a related development, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman, Patrick Leahy (D-VT) reintroduced his forensic sciences legislation in late March, this time with Senator Jon Cornyn (R-TX). According to a press release from his office, "the Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Reform Act (S. 2177) promotes national accreditation and certification standards and stronger oversight for forensic labs and practitioners, as well as the development of best practices and a national forensic science research strategy.  The bill will help law enforcement, courts, and lawyers in their efforts to effectively identify and convict people guilty of crimes and avoid the too-common tragedy of convicting the innocent."

Given the important roles for both science and the law enforcement community in forensic science reform, it's good that both committees have recognized the importance of forensic science reform and have both proposed legislation. One can assume that a next step is to merge the two bills. Because of a provision in the Leahy bill in the previous Congress to create an Office for Forensic Science in the Department of Justice, the ASA did not support the Leahy bill. That provision remains in the Leahy-Cornyn bill.  See this blog entry for more: ASA President Sends Letters to Senate Committee Chairmen on Forensic Science Reform.

Regarding the different perspectives for forensic science reform, I thought Eric Lander addressed the roles for the science community and the law enforcement community in a 2012 hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. See the excerpts in this blog entry: Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Holds Second Hearing on Forensic Science. It's great to see both bills proceeding with bipartisan support and I hope that will continue through the next steps. I also appreciate that both bills explicitly mentions statisticians. S. 2022, as introduced, specifies including statisticians on the advisory committee for forensic science: 
The Advisory Committee shall include balanced representation between forensic science disciplines (including academic scientists, statisticians, social scientists, engineers, and representatives of other related scientific disciplines) and relevant forensic science applications (including Federal, State, and local representatives of the forensic science community, the legal community, victim advocate organizations, and law enforcement).
S. 2177 includes this language
(2) Definition.--In this subsection, the term ``scientist'' 
                    (A) a statistician with a scientific background; 
                    (B) a board certified physician or forensic 
                pathologist with expertise in forensic sciences.

The ASA will continue to especially monitor the science components of any forensic science legislation.

For more on the ASA forensic science reform efforts, see this web page and these ASA Community blog entries: summarizes S. 2022 this way (which does not take into account the substitute amendment in committee):
Forensic Science and Standards Act of 2014 - Establishes a national forensic science research program to improve, expand, and coordinate federal research in forensic sciences.

Requires the Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) to contract with the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to develop a report identifying the most critical forensic science disciplines that require further research to strengthen the scientific foundation in those disciplines and making recommendations.

Establishes a National Forensic Science Coordinating Office at the NSF to coordinate among federal agencies: (1) the development of a unified federal research strategy to enhance the validity and reliability of forensic science disciplines; (2) the development of a five-year roadmap, updated triennially, for the unified strategy; and (3) any necessary programs, policies, and budgets to support implementation of the roadmap.

Directs NSF to create a merit-reviewed, competitive forensic science research grants program to improve the foundation and practice of forensic science in the United States, based on recommendations in the unified strategy.

Requires NSF to: (1) establish two forensic science research centers to conduct research consistent with the unified strategy, (2) award a grant of up to $10 million to each center, and (3) conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the grants program every four years.

Directs the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to identify or coordinate the development of forensic science standards to enhance the validity and reliability of forensic science activities.

Requires NIST to establish a Forensic Science Advisory Committee to provide advice to federal agencies, NIST, and the Department of Justice.

Instructs the Attorney General to promote the adoption of the standards developed under this Act.

See other ASA Science Policy blog entries. For ASA science policy updates, follow @ASA_SciPol on Twitter.