Source: Betty Layne DesPortes, JD, MS
On May 13, 2017, I had the honor of speaking at the commencement exercises for the Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Forensic Sciences. This Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC) -accredited program had 45 Bachelor of Science graduates and 15 Master of Science graduates for 2017. When I received my Master of Science degree from VCU in 1993, there were just four students enrolled in the entire graduate program and the undergraduate program did not exist yet. The growth in the VCU program is indicative of the strong interest of students in forensic science careers. That 70% of the 2017 VCU graduates had employment offers by graduation day shows the strength of this particular FEPAC-accredited program and of the forensic science field in general.
The 2017 graduates are also part of the transformation that is under way in how forensic science functions and how the legal community perceives forensic science. The VCU program emphasizes fundamental scientific learning and the role of research in improving forensic science practice. Students are trained to discharge their overarching responsibility to science through the vigilant and diligent application of validated procedures to evidence analysis. VCU has trained these graduates well.
As we welcome graduates across the country into the forensic science community, we are reminded that forensic science is critically important to the justice system. Forensic science impacts not only the individuals in the system — victims, the accused, civil plaintiffs and defendants — but also the public. Without the public’s faith in the system, our justice system will fail.
There will be occasions in which the work of forensic scientists will be the most valuable evidence considered by a judge or a jury in reaching a verdict. To ensure that the public continues to have faith in forensic science, we must be vigilant and diligent in our commitment to advancing science and its rigorous use in the justice system.
One way to further our commitment to strengthening forensic science is to work with the Department of Justice (DOJ) as it plans for future efforts in the wake of the decision not to renew the charter of the National Commission on Forensic Science.
The Department of Justice has requested public comment on how the Department should move forward to evaluate and improve the underlying science of forensic evidence; improve the operational management systems of forensic science service providers; and improve the understanding of forensic science by legal practitioners.
The AAFS Board of Directors voted to submit the following general statement concerning our priorities in strengthening forensic science:
AAFS BOARD OF DIRECTORS RESPONSE TO DOJ
The American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) (https://www.aafs.org) is a multi-disciplinary professional organization with a major objective of improving practice within the field of forensic science. The justice system depends on thorough, complete, accurate, and unbiased forensic evidence. AAFS supports advancing forensic science through continued integration of forensic science with the broader scientific community. The entire membership of our organization has a vested interest in strengthening forensic science and promoting its more rigorous use in the justice system. We recognize that science only advances with transparency, openness, and a commitment to the scientific method. Improving the underlying science and validity of forensic evidence requires support of ongoing standards development and implementation, including the work of NIST-OSAC and the Academy Standards Board; the commitment of major research funds to achieve further evaluation of method validity; and the promotion of accreditation of laboratories and certification of practitioners. Improving the operational management systems of forensic science service providers requires increased funding for adequate staffing to prioritize the reliability of scientific results while meeting the legal community’s needs for faster results.
Our mission is to provide leadership to advance science and its application to the legal system. Representing all 50 states and 70 other countries worldwide, the 6,638 members of AAFS are forensic science or legal practitioners who improve the understanding of forensic science by criminal and civil justice practitioners, policymakers, and the public through education, dissemination of research in forensic science, and public engagement. We encourage other groups, agencies, and organizations to collaborate with us to advance forensic science and its use in the legal system.
The Board also encourages all members of the Academy to submit comments to DOJ on ways to advance forensic science that provide more detailed and direct recommendations based upon experience. Members who have served on, or worked with, any of the federal initiatives (e.g., the National Commission on Forensic Science (NCFS), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC)) are especially encouraged to provide comment on the value of those initiatives.
Written comment should be submitted through www.regulations.gov by June 9, 2017 (enter “advancing forensic science” in the search box). Reference “Docket No. OLP 160” on your submission. Please feel free to mention your membership status and section in the Academy to ensure DOJ appreciates the commitment of Academy members to our mission of advancing science and its application to the legal system.
The entire membership of AAFS has a vested interest in strengthening forensic science and promoting its more rigorous use in the justice system. AAFS and the forensic science community need your participation to find our best path forward.