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Senate Science Committee Chair Introduces Bill to Advance Forensic Science Reform

By Steve Pierson posted 07-19-2012 08:57


Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee (CSTC) introduced a bill, S. 3378, last week addressing forensic science reform. Titled “The Forensic Science and Standards Act of 2012”, the bill is the second Senate bill addressing the need for forensic science reform identified in the 2009 National Academies report, “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.” Last year, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced S. 132, “The Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Reform Act.” (See Senator Leahy Introduces Forensic Science Reform bill.)

The Rockefeller bill is important because Senator Rockefeller’s committee has jurisdiction over the science considerations of forensic science reform and so can better address the relevant science issues just as Senator Leahy’s committee can better address the pertinent law enforcement aspects.  The presumed path forward in the Senate (most likely in the next Congress) is a combination of Leahy’s and Rockefeller’s bills.

Rockefeller’s bill has four principle components (Note that some of the following borrows from the CSTC summary of the bill):

  1. Promoting Research (Sections 4-6): Establish a National Forensic Science Coordinating (NSFC) Office, housed at the National Science Foundation (NSF), to develop a research strategy and roadmap and to support the implementation of that roadmap across relevant Federal agencies.
    1. Guidance through National Academies report  to be commissioned
    2. Advance research through grants program; two research centers; and research challenges  prize program
  2. Requiring Standards Development (Section 7).  The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) would be directed to develop forensic science standards, in consultation with standards development organizations and other stakeholders.  NIST could establish and solicit advice from discipline-specific expert working groups to identify standards development priorities and opportunities. 
  3. A Forensic Science Advisory Committee (Section 8) chaired by the Director of NIST and the Attorney General would be established to
    1. Advise on implementing the unified Federal research strategy
    2. Advise on development and the application of the new standards

It would be composed of 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).

  1. Adoption, Accreditation, and Certification (Section 9)

The Attorney General would direct the standards’ implementation in Federal forensic science laboratories and would encourage adoption in non-Federal laboratories as a condition of Federal funding or for inclusion in national databases.

A key difference with the Leahy bill is that the Rockefeller bill does not create an oversight office/institute for forensic science reform as the Strengthening Forensic Science report highly recommends (and the ASA endorsed) and the Leahy bill does. Having introduced its bill 18 months after the Leahy bill, Rockefeller’s committee had the benefit of better understanding that the current fiscal and political environment precludes the establishment of any new federal agencies. (A major concern the ASA has with the Leahy bill was the placement of its Office of Forensic Science in the Department of Justice. See ASA President Sends Letters to Senate Committee Chairmen on Forensic Science Reform.)

Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) introduced a companion bill in the House to S. 3378 on July 12. H.R. 6106 has two cosponsors: Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) and Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD).

The ASA does not yet have a position on S. 3378/H.R. 6106 but the ASA Board endorsed a statement on forensic science urging the need to bolster the science in forensic science and has been active in pushing forensic science reform. S. 3378/H.R. 6106 addresses many important issues in forensic science reform and so seems like a very positive step for forensic science reform.

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