03.28.14

Leahy & Cornyn Introduce Sweeping Forensics Reform Legislation

Bill Would Support Law Enforcement & Improve Reliability of Forensic Evidence

WASHINGTON (Friday, March 28, 2014) –Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), a former prosecutor with a long history of supporting both law enforcement and crime victims, and Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) this week introduced sweeping legislation to improve the use of forensic evidence in criminal cases. 

The Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Reform Act (S. 2177) promotes national accreditation and certification standards and stronger oversight for forensic labs and practitioners, as well as the development of best practices and a national forensic science research strategy.  The bill will help law enforcement, courts, and lawyers in their efforts to effectively identify and convict people guilty of crimes and avoid the too-common tragedy of convicting the innocent.  Since the first post-conviction DNA exoneration in the United States in 1989, there have been 314 DNA exonerations.  The measure, which was introduced on Thursday, aims to avoid wrongful convictions through the use of accurate forensic evidence.

“From DNA to digital evidence, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges are becoming increasingly reliant on the collection and analysis of various forms of forensic evidence in a criminal investigation or prosecution,” Leahy said in a statement. “The legislation I am introducing with Senator Cornyn represents a comprehensive and commonsense approach toward guaranteeing the effectiveness and integrity of forensic evidence used in criminal cases, and in ensuring that Americans can have faith in their criminal justice system.”

“This bill will allow us to dramatically improve the efficiency of our crime labs and reduce the number of wrongful convictions.  Forensic evidence is an important tool for bringing perpetrators to justice and it’s critical that our labs operate in the most effective way possible,” Cornyn said.  “The Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Reform Act gives us additional tools to reduce our nation’s unacceptable rape-kit backlog, put violent criminals behind bars, and provide oversight to crime labs that receive federal funding.”

The bipartisan measure introduced on Thursday is the result of years of work in the Senate Judiciary Committee, beginning with its first hearing in 2009 and another hearing in 2011, and involving numerous meetings with a wide range of stakeholders.  Leahy introduced similar forensics legislation in 2011, and he reiterated this week that Congress must pass a comprehensive bill to ensure meaningful and long-lasting reform.

“Improving the reliability of forensic evidence does not advance the interests of just prosecutors or defendants, or of Democrats or Republicans. It is in the interest of justice and public safety,” Leahy said.  “Senator Cornyn and I will continue to work diligently with senators on both sides of the aisle, and I hope many other senators will join us to cosponsor this legislation, and work with me to ensure its passage.”

Key provisions in the Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Reform Act would:

  • Create an Office of Forensic Science (OFS) within the Office of the Deputy Attorney General at the Department of Justice, and require coordination between the new office and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
  • Establish a Forensic Science Board (FSB), with members appointed by the President.
  • Require that all forensic science laboratories that receive federal funding be accredited according to rigorous standards set by the FSB and OFS.
  • Require that all relevant personnel who perform forensic work for any laboratory or agency that receives federal money to become certified in their fields.
  • Create Committees of scientists to examine forensic science disciplines to develop standards, best practices, and research priorities.
  • Promote basic and applied scientific research in the forensic sciences, and encourage public-private collaborations.
  • Provide support and training for State and local laboratories and law enforcement.

A copy of the legislation can be viewed here. A summary can be viewed here.

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