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Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Crime Lab Crisis: Too Many Cases, Not Enough Money

     So far this year, forensic science auditors have reported serious quality control problems in crime labs throughout the state of Michigan, St. Paul, Minnesota, Houston, Texas, Raleigh, North Carolina, Los Angeles, California, and Boston, Massachusetts. Over the past few years, dozens of crime laboratories across the country have lost their accreditation or have been closed. There have been major problems in drug testing units as well as in the fields of toxicology, DNA analysis, latent fingerprint processing, and firearms identification.

     While there has been some budget cutting that affects street policing, SWAT operations, anti-terrorism programs, and drug enforcement, crime labs have suffered the most from economic austerity. The lack of adequate crime lab funding has created personnel shortages, diminished training, physical plant deterioration, and attenuated administrative oversight.

     Overworked, and in many cases under-qualified lab personnel have produced scientifically unreliable results which have put tens of thousands of criminal cases in jeopardy. Moreover, virtually every crime lab in the country is plagued with substantial caseload backlogs which has seriously eroded the nation's criminal investigative services. Detectives are gathering the physical evidence, but getting it tested is a problem. While investigators wait for crime lab results, criminals remain at large committing more crimes. Crime labs have been closed down because forensic scientists have been caught taking short cuts, lying under oath, and mishandling evidence. As a result, the nation's crime investigation services have become less productive.

     On August 30, 2012, in Massachusetts, after revelations that a forensic chemist had deliberately mishandled drug samples, and failed to follow testing protocols, the state crime lab was shut down. Between 2003 and 2012, this lab analyst had handled more than 50,000 drug samples involving some 34,000 defendants. Now all of these cases are in jeopardy.

     The crime lab problem in Massachusetts reveals how much damage a single forensic scientist can cause. It also shows the effects of a grossly imbalanced criminal justice system. The government spends an enormous amount of tax dollars catching drug dealers and their customers which in turn overloads our underfunded crime laboratories. While television series like "CSI" has created high forensic science expectations among the general public, American criminal investigation, as it is actually practiced, is becoming less scientific and more militaristic. In the relatively short history of American forensic science, the golden era lays behind us, and the future looks bleak.   

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