Sessions Is Wrong to Take Science Out of Forensic Science

Every independent critique of our forensic science system comes back to the same basic conclusion about both the root of the problem and how to fix it: Forensic science rests under the exclusive control of police and prosecutors, and its legitimacy and integrity have suffered as a result. Even Obama-era law enforcement officials had a tenuous relationship to reform. Just last year, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology issued a report that reaffirmed and extended the 2009 findings. The F.B.I.’s response was to vehemently disagree, the Obama Department of Justice basically replied, “Thanks, no thanks,” and the professional association for the nation’s district attorneys criticized the report for its insufficient attention to “the ancient debate over precisely what constitutes ‘science’ ” while asserting that the final arbiter of good science should be lawyers and courtrooms, not scientists and laboratories.

The 2009 report concluded that the only way to ensure effective oversight of forensic evidence was to protect its independence from law enforcement. But its recommendation of a national, independent oversight agency was met with intense resistance from federal and state law enforcement. Instead, the national commission was formed as a compromise solution that brought in the National Institute on Standards and Technology as co-chairs and stewards of scientific values. Some forensic scientists — at times grudging partners in the process of reform — even came to embrace greater professionalization, and one major professional organization recently declined to support the Justice Department’s proposal to move forensics in-house.

The loss of an even partially independent national commission is no trivial matter.

In its brief two years of existence, it drafted 43 standards that actually changed forensic science, on the ground, for the better. The commission’s guidance…

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