Are the existing regulatory efforts in place in the U.S. sufficient to insure high quality, timely, and effective forensic services?
The various forensic science laboratory accreditation programs that are currently offered are voluntary, except for the handful of States mandating accreditation of forensic service providers. There are no mandatory requirements for forensic science practitioners (with the exception of DNA standards). Forensic science practitioners are not required to meet any rigorous standards to demonstrate competency. (Technical Working Groups or TWG do recommend minimum standards.)
Judges decide whether an expert can proffer opinion evidence testimony. Many practitioners are very well qualified and clearly know their areas of expertise; others, perhaps less so. The point is that there are few objective mandatory requirements to demonstrate competency of laboratory operations or forensic scientists. In Addition, there is the question of the many hundreds, and perhaps thousands of police agencies that provide forensic services but are not considered crime labs. Thus it is a fair question to ask: should forensic science be regulated?
Practitioner certification is another element of a quality system. As noted earlier, only DNA requires a form of mandatory certification. There are other forensic areas outside of the crime laboratory: forensic pathology, forensic dentistry, etc. which require practitioners to be licensed by the State in which they practice.
Why is forensic science unlike all the other professions that require a mandatory demonstration of quality? Imagine if you had to be hospitalized. Would you consider going to a non-accredited hospital? Would you willing receive treatment from a physician or dentist who was not licensed to practice? Surely the suggestion that the trial serves the purpose of demonstrating competency and quality of forensic science providers and organizations has been shown not to be the case?
A question that needs to be addressed is: who “owns” forensic science? Whose responsibility is it to make sure that the forensic science delivery system works well? Should forensic science police itself? How much input should other stakeholders: police, prosecutors, defenders, innocence projects, the courts, other scientists, and the public have in this process? To develop an affective system, all stakeholders need a place at the table and the chance to be heard.
Does some entity need to be created to administer the process? How is it to operate? How can it influence State governments to comply with regulations? How will it be funded? Will it be transparent? These are just a few of the many questions that need to be considered.
(This posting was adapted from an article published in AAFS News, September, 2010, by the Forum moderator.)