Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced April 10 the Department of Justice (DOJ) will not renew an Obama-created advisory panel which has been studying ways to improve forensic science for four years. Instead, DOJ says it plans a series of different steps to bring responsibility for policy making inside the Department of Justice.
The National Commission on Forensic Science was created early in 2013, for an initial, renewable two-year term, by DOJ and the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology. Comprised of about 30 judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, scientists, and crime lab officials, its mission was to provide advice to DOJ on a variety of forensic evidence issues.
Its goals included studying ways to improve the reliability and usefulness of scientific evidence used by investigators and prosecutors, examining methods and protocols used by criminal investigative laboratories, and identifying priorities for further research.
In 2015, the commission was extended for another two years, and kept up an active schedule of quarterly meetings and drafts papers on scientific topics, training on legal and scientific issues, and accreditation standards, among other areas.
Forensics has been a hot-button issue for some years. A Congressionally-mandated study, released by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences in 2009, highlighted uncertainties connected with many types of forensic evidence and called for further research, plus better standards and credentialing for testing labs. In 2015, the Federal Bureau of Investigation put out a report acknowledging faults in its some of its forensic methods, notably hair and fiber analysis.
Most recently and controversially, another presidential advisory body – the president’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology — in September 2016 issued a report sharply critical of some commonly used forensic evidence methods. The report also recommended a number of changes in how numerous federal agencies, as well as federal courts, handle forensic evidence.
While some jurists applauded the report, it drew strong push-back from prosecutors, the FBI, and even parts of the DOJ, as overdrawn or even unscientific. Furthermore, all of the position papers drafted by the commission’s subcommittees or approved by at least two-thirds majority votes came before the Trump administration took office.
The new Attorney General’s announcement made clear the National Commission on Forensic Science will be allowed to expire April 23, at the end of its current term. Instead of renewing the advisory panel, Sessions said, he would name a senior forensic advisor in the near future to serve as DOJ’s primary point of contact with forensic science experts and to advise DOJ leaders. The forensic advisor will also lead an analysis of the needs of the nation’s forensic testing labs and submit recommendations to Congress.
DOJ also said it will soon publish a notice inviting public comment, with a response due by June 9, of how DOJ can “strengthen the foundations” of forensic science.
The DOJ allowing the commission to lapse drew mixed reaction. The Innocence Project and the only federal judge to serve on the advisory panel lamented DOJ’s turn inward on forensic reliability issues, but a group representing district attorneys welcomed it and recommended creating a new forensic science office within DOJ.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to The Huffington Post, New York Daily News, and Prison Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and Prisonerresource.com.