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Trump Administration Outlines New Forensic Science Policies …. Largely Omitting the Science

By Steve Pierson posted 03-29-2018 12:43


This post is co-authored with 

Karen Kafadar,* chair, American Statistical Association (ASA) Advisory Committee on Forensic Science; Commonwealth Professor and Chair; Department of Statistics, University of Virginia; 2019 President of the ASA.
Hal S. Stern,* vice-chair, ASA Advisory Committee on Forensic Science; Professor of Statistics, University of California, Irvine.
See also ASA President Lisa LaVange's March 21 letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on this topic.

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The U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ) last month outlined its new forensic science policies, introducing some welcome transparency but taking a step back when it comes to interaction with the scientific community. Such a step back will impede forensic science progress and criminal justice reform in the United States. To understand why this is a step back, consider, for example, the immense about of work needed to scientifically quantify a match in such common evidence as finger prints, bite marks, and firearm markings.

There was little interaction of the scientific community and forensic science practitioners until a 2009 National Academies report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, brought widespread attention to many glaring scientific pitfalls of most forensic science disciplines. That report also inspired productive reforms—including the creation of the National Commission for Forensic Science (NCFS), forensic science support and research at National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the creation of a NIST-managed standards-development body called the Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC) for Forensic Science—that were helping to strengthen our criminal justice system and to help ensure guilty parties faced prosecution and innocent individuals weren’t imprisoned.

Almost a year after letting the NCFS expire and then proposing major cuts to forensic science support and research at NIST, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein presented at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) 70th Annual Scientific Meeting in Seattle USDOJ’s most comprehensive comments since issuing an April 2017 call for comments on advancing forensic science. While affirming USDOJ’s reliance “on forensic science to carry out its mission” and its “commitment to the reliable use of forensic science,” Rosenstein made these four announcements: the issuing of guidance to Department forensic examiners for testimonial consistency and quality assurance; testimony monitoring practices to ensure testimonial consistency and accountability; public posting of quality management system documents and summaries of internal validation studies to increase transparency; and the re-chartering of the Council of Federal Forensic Laboratory Directors.

While Rosenstein attention to forensic science reform is encouraging as is the fact that he traveled to Seattle to speak, his department is placing insufficient emphasis on the importance of more research to bolster the forensic sciences and on the joint engagement of law enforcement, legal professionals, forensic science practitioners, and scientists that is so critical to effective forensic science reform.

Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein failed to acknowledge in his AAFS comments the need to bolster the science underlying many forensic science disciplines. Rosenstein’s comments use the word “research” sparingly, for example, in saying that one of the duties of the revived Council of Federal Forensic Laboratory Directors (CFFLD) is to “identify research needs.” The omission of a call for more research is concerning because of the fundamental importance of science to advance forensic practice.

In response to the Department of Justice’s April 2017 call for comments, the ASA made six recommendations, three of an administrative nature and three to improve forensic science practice. The first administrative recommendation speaks to the just-mentioned omission in Rosenstein’s comments: “The Department of Justice should remain focused on assembling the four communities - law enforcement, legal professionals, forensic science practitioners, scientists - whose joint engagement, input, and involvement are required to address the underlying challenges needed to effect forensic science reform.” If the CFFLD can bring together these four communities, we would urge it do so.

Of the other ASA recommendations, two were recommendations on how the USDOJ National Institute of Justice and NIST could advance forensic science research; these were endorsements of recommendations of another National Academies report, the 2015 Support for Forensic Science Research: Improving the Scientific Role of the National Institute of Justice.

In a positive light, Rosenstein’s transparency announcement—Department forensic laboratories supporting criminal investigations and prosecutions will begin publicly posting current quality management system documents and summaries of internal validation studies online—is a welcome one and will help to improve the practice of forensic science. The following comments are also encouraging, and perhaps an acknowledgment of the ASA recommendation for reports and testimony to acknowledge “uncertainty associated with forensic science measurements, processes and interpretations”:

[an expert’s conclusion] “must be carefully expressed in words—in both forensic reports and trial testimony. Those words must correctly convey both the significance and the limitations of that conclusion.”

In addition to Rosenstein’s science-lite forensic science policies, the Trump administration proposed once again in their F19 budget proposal to slash NIST’s forensic science research work and its OSAC management functions. Fortunately, as we learned March 21, Congress rejected these efforts in FY18. There is no telling however how Congress will respond to the FY19 request to cut NIST’s forensic science efforts since the House had initially gone along with the FY18 proposed cuts.

The USDOJ press release framed Rosenstein's announcement around "advancing forensic science" but to us these moves appear to be a step back, to a pre-2009 strategy that even the forensic scientists agree was not effective.

*NB: Kafadar and Stern serve on the OSAC, and, along with Alicia Carriquiry and William Eddy, are principal investigators on a NIST-funded center of excellence for forensic science slated for termination in the Trump Administrations proposed budget.

​​See other ASA Science Policy blog entries. For ASA science policy updates, follow @ASA_SciPol on Twitter and visit the ASA Science Policy and Advocacy webpage.