In California, this lack of lab oversight was highlighted when San Diego County sheriff’s deputies began questioning test results. The errors they found eventually led to a review of hundreds of toxicology tests done by a private lab. A total of eleven people were released from jail, and at least seven of them saw their criminal cases dismissed. Mistakes such as these threaten to seriously undermine confidence in the criminal justice system.

A report released in late 2009 by the California Crime Lab Review Task Force, An Examination of Forensic Science in California, made some recommendations for improvements. For example, The Task Force highlighted the importance of requiring accreditation of forensic labs, as well as the need for forensic analysts to be certified by relevant professional organizations. The perennial need for additional funding was also emphasized. By mandating both employee certification and lab accreditation and by increasing funding, the state will improve forensic practice in the state. But the integrity of forensic evidence is too important to outsource oversight and quality standards entirely to professional trade organizations. Accreditation and professional certification are important first steps, but the responsibility for setting and ensuring quality standards, objectivity and independence ultimately resides with the state itself. A full solution will need to include more structural reform.

One of these crucial steps is the creation of an independent oversight commission, staffed and funded to more closely supervise the work of forensic labs. This type of commission could set statewide quality standards that could build on the baseline afforded by professional associations, and could provide more rigorous, ongoing oversight to ensure that labs actually operate in a way that is consistent with the standards that exist on paper. Shifting forensic labs out from under the control of law enforcement agencies would address the subtle biases that can emerge when forensic workers see themselves on the law enforcement "team" instead of dispassionate and objective scientists. These safeguards and others are outlined in The Justice Project’s policy review Improving the Practices and Use of Forensic Science, and will help to ensure the objectivity and reliability of forensic testing and analysis.

Reliable forensic science is vital, and by making sure that the evidence is objective and valid, we will have a more efficient criminal justice system. Fixing these problems on the front end will reduce the chances that the state will have to spend more money and resources to correct the mistakes and injustices caused by forensic errors. At a time when California, along with the rest of the nation, is dealing with financial restraints, it is all the more imperative that legislators in all states make these improvements a priority. Forensic science can be a powerful tool, and meaningful structural reform is the only way to ensure that the best science is used in our courts.

John F. Terzano is President of The Justice Project, a nonpartisan organization that works to increase fairness and accuracy in the criminal justice system.
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John Terzano

John Terzano

John Terzano has been involved in social justice advocacy for more than twenty-five years. Terzano led a five-year campaign to pass the Innocence Protection Act (IPA), the first piece of federal death penalty reform legislation to pass Congress and be signed into law. The IPA allows for DNA testing of individuals who may have been wrongfully convicted and authorizes funding to states to clear their DNA backlogs and improve forensic laboratory capacity and standards across the nation as well as provide assistance to states to improve the quality of legal representation for indigent defendants in State capital cases among other reforms. As president of The Justice Project, John is instrumental in working to reform the criminal justice system through public education, litigation support and legislative reform efforts.

Terzano received his undergraduate degree in public affairs from the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University; graduated magna cum laude from the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law (UDC-DCSL); and received a Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree in International Legal Studies from American University's Washington College of Law. Terzano is an Adjunct Professor of Law at UDC-DCSL, is a former Vice Chair of the American Bar Association's Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities Criminal Justice Committee and currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Southern Center for Human Rights and Friends of the Law Library of Congress.