CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and its many spin-offs might be the world’s most popular television series. As a result the “CSI effect” has influenced the forensic sciences and indeed the criminal justice system.
Due to the dramatic license taken by television writers, however, the CSI effect erroneously raises our expectations of forensic science by glamorizing it, exaggerating its abilities, and overstating the accuracy of forensic techniques.
While remarkable advances in biotechnology have enabled DNA typing to become the gold standard for forensic science, other forensic evidence such as fingerprints, toolmarks, bitemarks, hairs, and blood spatters struggle to defend themselves against their critics. We should all expect forensic science to solve crimes and put the right people in jail. But it doesn’t always work that way.
That’s why in February the National Academy’s Committee on Identifying the Needs of the Forensic Sciences Community issued a report on the scientific shortcomings and policy changes that could improve the field, titled “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.” Though the report did not dwell on the past, there was nothing new—nothing that leading forensic scientists such as those from the Consortium of Forensic Science Organizations (CFSO) have not been proposing for decades. “The CFSO has long called for a comprehensive review of the state of forensics in this country,” said chairman Peter Marone.
The report says that the way forward is to minimize the great disparities between federal, state, and local crime laboratories. All crime labs need money, educated and skilled staff, more training, and better analytical equipment. In an effort to minimize these disparities, the committee made several key recommendations: crime labs should be independent and autonomous from law-enforcement agencies (police and prosecutors); crime labs should write reports that are more consistent with standards generally accepted by the scientific community; there needs to be more fundamental research primarily designed to better understand error rates for all forensic techniques; there needs to be mandatory accreditation of laboratories and mandatory certification of forensic scientists; and, an enforceable code of ethics for the practice of forensic science needs to be established.
Probably the most contentious recommendation, and the most political, will be trying to separate crime labs from law enforcement. Many will think that the system works best when there is local control over a proper mix of science and crime investigation. The criminal investigators need ready access to the science; scientists need to be responsive to community desires to solve crime. The concept of removing forensic science from the influence of the police and prosecutors has long been proposed as a way to prevent contextual bias. But is that true?
Bias and pressure to conform come from a variety of places in forensic scientists’ psyches. In addition, crime labs need funding and funding comes with political power. From where will the isolated, independent forensic laboratory derive its strength and appropriations? Today, they get it from the law-enforcement community of which they are a part. Of course, we would also expect that the federal government might find some difficulty legislating local police and court practices from Washington.