6,350,000 pageviews

Sunday, July 8, 2012

More Crime Lab Problems

     Crime laboratories in the United States are underfunded and understaffed. This has produced serious backlogs, sloppy work, and bad forensic science. Defense attorneys across the country are routinely challenging the scientific reliability of crime lab results. Convictions have been overturned based on bad forensic science. Several crime lab units have been temporarily shut down, and denied accreditation. Recently, the troubled crime lab in Houston was taken from the police department and put into the hands of an independent group of civic leaders. (See: "The Houston Crime Lab: The Nation's Worst," June 18, 2012.)

The Michigan State Police Forensic Science Division

     The seven crime labs in the state of Michigan under the control of the Michigan State Police are at risk of losing their accreditation by the Laboratory Accreditation Board of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors. If this happens, the Michigan crime lab system will lose its scientific credibility, and could even be shut down.

     In December 2011, the seven laboratories were examined by inspectors with the Laboratory Accreditation Board which issued 118 "Corrective Action Requests." (This information would not have been made public had The Detroit News not filed a Freedom of Information Act suit.) The crime labs have been slow or unable to address the problems. As a result, the board has given the state three accreditation extensions, the last and final extension granted last April. If the problems are not fixed soon, the entire Michigan crime lab operation, and the state's criminal justice system, will be in trouble. If this happens, Michigan's crime lab work might have to be farmed out to other labs, including the FBI laboratory which is itself overwhelmed and struggling with backlogs.

     While Michigan state police administrators have insisted that the problems in the crime labs are more clerical than substantive, many of the shortcomings involve issues of quality control. The accreditation inspectors found that some of the facilities were improperly storing hazardous chemicals. In the lab in Grand Rapids, food was being kept in a refrigerator that contained chemical supplies. There were also problems with measures to prevent lab contamination and evidence tampering. Inspectors saw unescorted visitors roaming the laboratories.

    Most of the lab inadequacies involved various forms of record keeping and lab result reporting, problems that reflect sloppy work, lack of supervision, and understaffing. In the Michigan Forensic Science Division, there is currently a backlog of 10,000 cases. Criminal investigators and prosecutors, to function effectively, need prompt crime lab results, especially in the fields of DNA and toxicology. Backlogs slow down an investigation, and in some cases, accrue to the benefit of suspects and defendants.

     The rates of violent crime across the country are dropping, but the rates of drug abuse are rising, cases that require crime lab analysis. Moreover, prosecutors, to meet jury expectations, are telling detectives to gather as much physical evidence as possible. Crime labs are having a difficult time keeping up with these demands. The public's high expectations for forensic science, thanks to the "CSI" TV shows (ten years ago no one knew what CSI stood for), the nation's crime labs are under a lot of pressure.       

No comments:

Post a Comment