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Supporting Crime Lab Directors and the Formation of the Forensic Laboratory Needs Technology Working Group

American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors

Remarks by NIJ Principal Deputy Director Dr. Howard Spivak at the American Society of Crime Lab Director's 45th Annual Symposium.

I’m very pleased to be here, and bring you warm greetings and regrets from the Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs, Alan Hanson, who was obliged to stay in Washington today to attend to urgent Department business.

It’s a privilege and an honor to join our nation’s crime lab directors and leading forensic experts at this symposium.

For 45 years, the American Society of Crime Lab Directors has been in the vanguard of the forensic science community.

Throughout the history of this distinguished organization, you and your predecessors have brought together federal, state, local, and private lab professionals to identify common challenges and find common solutions. You’ve used your considerable collective expertise to influence national policy. And you’ve elevated the standards by which crime labs operate, making forensic science indispensable to fighting and solving crimes.

The connection between science and justice strengthens every day, thanks to your leadership. You should all be very proud of the impact you have made, and continue to make, on the integrity of our systems of justice.

At the Department of Justice, we share your commitment to creating an effective network of crime labs across the country – and we are acting on that commitment. Earlier this year, the Deputy Attorney General announced that we have revived the Council of Federal Forensic Laboratory Directors, with a new charter and a mandate to continue to improve our forensic work.

This council is made up of representatives from the Department of Justice and other executive branch agencies with forensic science labs, and they’re working to identify trends, share intelligence, determine research needs, and encourage collaborative ways to use forensic science in the fight against crime.

This is an important step in ensuring the reliability of forensic science at the federal level, and we are grateful to ASCLD for allowing the Council to meet this week in conjunction with the symposium.

We are taking other steps as well to make sure scientific evidence stands up to the rigors of the law. Under the Deputy Attorney General’s direction, we’re developing guidance for Justice Department examiners to clearly and accurately convey scientific conclusions, and our labs and digital analysis units will soon begin to closely monitor expert testimony to measure it against solid scientific principles.

You’ll hear more about these efforts from my colleague, Ted Hunt, a little later. Ted is the Department’s Senior Advisor on Forensic Science, and he is spearheading the day-to-day efforts of the Department to raise the bar in federal labs.

Our mandate for strengthening forensic science goes beyond our obligations in the federal system. More than 90 percent of forensic analysis – including DNA, drug chemistry and toxicology, and virtually all medico-legal death investigation – is done at the state, local, and tribal levels. One of the Attorney General’s forensic science priorities is to improve communication and collaboration with stakeholders at those levels.

This is the bread and butter of NIJ’s parent agency, the Office of Justice Programs. Helping our state, local, and tribal partners expand their capacity to fight crime and protect their communities is our reason for being – and we place great stock in the value of forensics to impact public safety. Last year, OJP awarded almost $120 million to fund crime labs and support the work of forensic scientists across the country.

 OJP’s work in this area is led by my office, the National Institute of Justice, under the direction of David Muhlhausen. David’s director of investigative and forensic science is Gerry LaPorte, who joins me today. You’ll hear more from Gerry in a moment about the comprehensive work that his unit is doing, to include everything from sexual assault kit backlogs to DNA analysis to finding missing persons and identifying human remains.

OJP’s statistical unit – the Bureau of Justice Statistics – is also involved in helping us find out about the needs of forensic professionals and the challenges you face. BJS plans to conduct a new version of the Census of Publicly Funded Forensic Crime Laboratories. This will give us much-needed data on staffing and resource levels and other key activities at publicly-funded crime labs.

A big part of our responsibility – as important in my view as funding and research – is coordinating with the right people on these issues. This is an objective we share with ASCLD, which, after all, was founded on a model of federal, state, and local partnership.

Last year, when Attorney General Sessions announced the decision not to renew the National Commission on Forensic Science, we made a pledge to the forensic science community that we would find a way to ensure that your input is considered at critical junctures. The Office of Legal Policy published a request for comment in the federal register in April 2017 and asked forensic science stakeholders a series of questions.

We asked:

  • What are the biggest needs in forensic science?
  • What is required to improve forensic science practices and capacity at the federal, state, local, and tribal levels?
  • What are the barriers to improving capacity and what resources are needed to overcome those barriers?
  • And, what resources and relationships can the Department draw on to ensure thoughtful and representative input?

NIJ was tasked to find a way to give the forensic science community a voice in answering those questions, and over the past year, David, Gerry, and their team have conducted a needs assessment of forensic laboratories. The purpose of this project is to examine the workload of America’s public crime labs, and evaluate personnel, equipment, and training needs.

Dr. Jonathan McGrath from NIJ is helping to lead this effort in collaboration with Kira Antell from the Department’s Office of Legal Policy, along with Ted Hunt. Jon is here with me today, as well.

As part of this effort, we’ve held a number of listening sessions with forensic science stakeholders. We’ve asked about the most urgent needs facing the forensic community, and we’ve talked about possible solutions.

We’ve had discussions with lab directors, bench scientists, and investigators, and we’ve met with forensic associations, societies, and organizations – including a two-day session with ASCLD representatives.

The assessment results will be captured in a report to Congress this fall, but I want to share with you three important take-aways from these sessions.

First, we learned a lot about the people who work in this field.  Forensic scientists bring tremendous expertise, commitment, and passion to their jobs each day. Most of you work in state and local labs with small budgets and big caseloads. It’s clear that you care deeply about your work and its impact on public safety, public health, and public confidence in the criminal justice system.

It’s also clear that you’re full of great ideas and you’re eager to share those ideas. Every session revealed greater insights into the challenges you face and helped bring potential solutions into focus.

The second thing we learned is that there are some common themes that cut across disciplines and specialties. The opioid epidemic and the rise in violent crime in some areas of the country have put a strain on an already over-taxed system – and crime labs, medical examiners, and forensic toxicologists feel the strain more than anyone.

The forensic community has been burdened by an increased demand for services, rising case backlogs, and requests for quicker turn-around times.  Funding, personnel, training, and equipment needs have not always kept pace with new demands. In light of these challenges, we’re exploring new ways to increase testing capacities and decrease backlogs. We’re also looking at ways to increase casework efficiencies with new technologies and systems-based strategies. The third thing we’ve learned is that the future of forensic science holds great promise. There’s never been greater public interest in the field of forensics. Research is flourishing. Revolutionary technologies like rapid DNA and next generation DNA sequencing are on the verge of becoming reality. And the Justice Department’s commitment to forensic innovation has never been stronger.

Thanks to these listening sessions, we have a better understanding of the technology needs of the forensic community, but we realize that these listening sessions can only take us so far in answering the questions I shared a moment ago.

That is why I am so pleased to announce today the formation of a new forensic science technology working group. This new group – called the Forensic Laboratory Needs Technology Working Group (FLN-TWG) – will be housed at the National Institute of Justice and supported by the Forensic Technology Center of Excellence. It will be made up of lab directors from across the country, representing labs big and small, urban and rural, independent labs and labs organized in law enforcement agencies.[1]

In addition to lab directors, the group will include a small number of leaders in the field of forensic science research. We believe this model – of practitioners supported by researchers – is the best path forward.

This group will be a standing working group that will meet in person twice a year so the Department can hear from you, the experts, and ensure that we are focusing our resources appropriately. We plan to hold the first meeting later this summer.

In forming this group, we relied heavily on feedback from ASCLD leaders and other forensic science stakeholders who shared that forensic practitioners had not always felt their input was welcomed by the Justice Department. With the TWG, we are inviting you to the table and telling you that we are committed to strengthening the relationship between the Justice Department and forensic science practitioners.

Our vision is that the group will provide the Department with objective and independent knowledge and expertise, and help ensure that forensic research is relevant and responsive to the technology needs of the forensic science community. Our hope is, of course, that it will produce actionable results. Having a group of such esteemed experts will also give us leverage in promoting the abundant work funded and supported by NIJ.

We plan to post information about the working group, including the members, on a dedicated website.

I’m excited about this new phase in the Department’s work to strengthen forensic science. We are riding a wave of innovation that, I believe, will lead to a stronger justice system and safer communities. With our nation’s crime lab directors and forensic professionals leading the way, we are advancing toward a new era in public safety.

Science and technology have the potential to revolutionize crime-fighting in America, but it will take all of us combining our expertise, pooling our knowledge, and sharing our resources. Most of all, it will demand the unshakeable commitment to scientific principles that each of you models in your work every day.

Our Attorney General and this Department of Justice share your commitment, and we pledge our support and partnership as we work together to make our society safer and more just.

We are grateful for all that you are doing on behalf of our nation’s communities, and we look forward to continuing our work together.

Thank you.

[note 1] This working group compliments NIJ's existing Forensic Science Technology Working Group, which focuses on identifying operational research and development needs as identified by bench scientists. Learn more about this group and review the operational requirements they have developed annually since 2013.

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