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Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward
to impose standards and best practices in forensic science practice rely on the voluntary participation of some members of the forensic science community working diligently to improve overall quality in the field.
Despite important movement in recent years toward developing and implementing quality control measures in the forensic science disciplines, a lack of uniform and mandatory quality assurance procedures, combined with some highly publicized problems involving large crime laboratories, has led to heightened attention to efforts to remedy uneven quality among laboratories through the imposition of standards and best practices. The American Bar Association has recommended that, “Crime laboratories and medical examiner officers should be accredited, examiners should be certified, and procedures should be standardized and published to ensure the validity, reliability, and timely analysis of forensic evidence.”4
In Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals,5 the Supreme Court cited as a relevant factor in assessing expert testimony the “existence and maintenance of standards controlling the technique’s operation.” Standards and best practices create a professional environment that allows organizations and professions to create quality systems, policies, and procedures and maintain autonomy from vested interest groups. Standards ensure desirable characteristics of services and techniques such as quality, reliability, efficiency, and consistency among practitioners. Typically standards are enforced through systems of accreditation and certification, wherein independent examiners and auditors test and audit the performance, policies, and procedures of both laboratories and service providers. In addition, requirements for quality control can be imposed on entities receiving federal funds, and professional groups can develop codes of ethics and conduct to serve as measures against which performance can be assessed.
This chapter addresses some of the traditional approaches used by technical professions to enhance the quality of performance—accreditation, certification (including proficiency testing), and oversight—tied to federal funding. In each approach, standards are used to measure the quality of institutions or organizations, either in terms of their policies and procedures or in terms of the proficiency and skills of an individual practicing the discipline. However, as mentioned above, with the exception of three states mandating accreditation (New York, Oklahoma, and Texas), the accreditation of laboratories and certification of forensic examiners remains voluntary.
American Bar Association. 2006. Report of the ABA Criminal Justice Section’s Ad HocInnocence Committee to Ensure the Integrity of the Criminal Process. Achieving Justice:Freeing the Innocent, Convicting the Guilty. P.C. Giannelli and M. Raeder (eds.). Chicago: American Bar Association.