12.17.10

Leahy To Introduce Forensics Reform Legislation In New Congress

WASHINGTON (Friday, Dec. 17, 2010) – Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) Friday announced his intent to introduce legislation in January to strengthen the criminal justice system by reforming forensic science in laboratories across the country.  Leahy chaired hearings in the 111th Congress to examine serious issues in forensic science and the reliability of such evidence in the criminal justice system.

 

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),

Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee,

On Legislative Proposals For Forensics Reform

December 17, 2010

 

For nearly two years, the Senate Judiciary Committee has been examining serious issues in forensic science that go to the heart of our criminal justice system.  The Committee has studied the problem exhaustively, and we reached out to a wide array of experts and stakeholders.  While the days of the 111th Congress are drawing to a close, it is my intention to introduce legislation early next year that represents the culmination of this process.  That legislation will strengthen our confidence in the criminal justice system and the evidence it relies upon by ensuring that forensic evidence and testimony is accurate, credible, and scientifically grounded.

In February of 2009, the National Academy of Science (NAS) published a report asserting that the field of forensic science has significant problems that must be urgently addressed.  The report suggested that basic research establishing the scientific validity of many forensic science disciplines has never been done in a comprehensive way.  It also suggested that the forensic sciences lack uniform and unassailable standards governing the accreditation of laboratories, the certification of forensic practitioners, and the testing and analysis of evidence.  Indeed, I was disturbed to learn about still more cases in which innocent people may have been convicted, perhaps even executed, in part due to faulty forensic evidence. 

Since then, the Judiciary Committee has held a pair of hearing on the issue.  Committee members, as well as staff, have spent countless hours talking to prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement officers, judges, forensic practitioners, scientists, academic experts, and many, many others to learn as much as we can about what is happening now and what needs to be done.  Through the course of this inquiry, we discussed some of the current problems in forensic science that we need to address.  But it also became abundantly clear that the men and women who test and analyze forensic evidence do great work that is vital to our criminal justice system.  Accordingly, as a former prosecutor, I am committed to strengthening the field of forensics, and the justice system’s confidence in it, so that their hard work can be consistently relied upon, as it should be.

While there were varying responses to the findings of the NAS report, one thing was clear:  there needed to be a searching review of the state of forensic science work in this country.  And it also became clear through this process that there is widespread consensus about the need for change and the kind of change that is needed.  Almost everyone I heard from recognized the need for strong and unassailable research to test and establish the validity of the forensic disciplines, as well as the need for consistent and rigorous accreditation and certification standards in the field.

Prosecutors and law enforcement officers want evidence that can be relied upon as definitively as possible to determine guilt and prove it in a court of law.  Defense attorneys want strong evidence that can as definitively as possible exclude innocent people.  Forensic practitioners want their work to have as much certainty as possible and to be given deserved deference.  All scientists and all attorneys who care about these issues want the science that is admitted as evidence in the courtroom to match the science that is proven through rigorous testing and research in the laboratory.

Everyone who cares about forensics also recognizes that there is a dire need for well managed and appropriately directed funding for research, development, training, and technical assistance.  It is a good investment, as it will lead to fewer trials and appeals and reduce crime by ensuring that those who commit serious offenses are promptly captured and convicted. 

The legislation I intend to introduce next year will address these widely recognized needs.  Among other things, it will require that all forensic science laboratories that receive federal funding or federal business be accredited according to rigorous and uniform standards.  It will require that all relevant personnel who perform forensic work for any laboratory or agency that gets federal money become certified in their fields, which will mean meeting standards in proficiency, education, and training.

I expect that the proposal will set up a rigorous process to determine the most serious needs for peer-reviewed research in the forensic science disciplines and will set up grant programs to fund that research.  The bill will also provide for this research to lead to appropriate standards and best practices in each discipline.  It will also fund research into new technologies and techniques that will allow forensic testing to be done more quickly, more efficiently, and more accurately.  I believe these are proposals that will be widely supported by those on all sides of this issue.

The bill that I will introduce will seek to balance carefully a number of competing considerations that are so important to getting a review of forensic science right.  It will capitalize on existing expertise and structures, rather than calling for the creation of a costly new agency.  And ultimately, improved forensic science will save money, reduce the number of costly appeals, shorten investigations and trials, and help to eliminate wrongful imprisonments.

I understand that sweeping forensic reform and criminal justice reform legislation not only should, but must, be bipartisan.  There is no reason for a partisan divide on this issue; fixing this problem does not advance prosecutors or defendants, liberals or conservatives, but justice.  I have worked closely with interested Republican Senators on this vital issue.  I hope that many Republican Senators will join me in introducing important forensics reform legislation at the beginning of the next Congress, and I will continue to work diligently with Senators on both sides of the aisle to ensure that this becomes the consensus bipartisan legislation that it ought to be.

I want to thank the forensic science practitioners, experts, advocates, law enforcement personnel, judges, and so many others whose input forms the basis for the legislation I will propose.  Their passion for this issue and for getting it right gives me confidence that we will work together successfully to make much needed progress.

I hope all Senators will join me next year in advancing important legislation to restore confidence to the forensic sciences and the criminal justice system. 

 

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