The National Accreditation of Crime Labs: Purpose, Feasibility, and Efficacy

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One of the most frequently discussed proposals surrounding the reformation of crime labs includes the strategy of implementing nationwide accreditation standards for forensic laboratories across multiple jurisdictions and contexts (Burch & Durose, 2016). Presently, crime labs operating in the United States include multiple models that are affiliated with various local, state, and federal-level law enforcement agencies (Gianelli, 2014). Individual labs operate under the quality assurance guidelines established by their specific jurisdiction, such as federal standards regulating federal-based labs. The lack of nationally standardized or accredited forensic practices also tends to result in varying levels of quality across the operations that work in conjunction with local, state, and federal bodies. By creating and mandating nationally accredited standards for affiliated crime labs, this system seeks to streamline and standardize data collection and sharing, as well as evidence processing requirements and policies, as a way of ensuring supporting and enhancing criminal justice systems in a consistent, proven manner. 

Improvements in the United States criminal justice system typically entail measures that will address areas of practice, or strategies that will improve the supporting technologies (such as forensic testing) that inform and enhance field operation. In terms of the former, reform measures often target areas of system inefficiency that result in varied negative outcomes, whether these entail system or outcome-related problems. 

Both sets of measurement underscore three prominent themes. The criminal justice system is viewed from a systems-based perspective, meaning that either inefficiencies or improvements will subsequently impact each other (Bernard, Paoline & Pare, 2005). Next, proposed strategies need to both understand and articulate the ways in which a singular proposal might impact the broader system in terms of its efficiencies or operations. Finally, criminal justice reformers should identify and propose those improvements that will bring about the most substantial types of positive effects for multiple agencies and intra-agency operators. 

The lack of standardized or accredited forensic practices also tends to result in varying levels of quality across the operations that work in conjunction with local, state, and federal bodies. One of the most egregious examples included the 2010 scandals impacting North Carolina crime labs. Investigators revealed that a lack of quality standards in that state’s forensic sites likely led to such abuses as data mismanagement, corruption, or even theft and concealment on the part of attending technicians over an estimated period of 20 years (Gianelli, 2012). Cases such as this highlight the impact of abuse occurring within crime labs as well as the broader criminal justice processes, individuals and outcomes. If courts and police departments cannot depend upon forensic labs to process and analyze data and to verify its relevance in cases, the validity and ethicality of these organizations are at risk. Corrupt inputs on the part of poorly regulated and inefficient crime labs result in the equally corrupt outputs of faulty data, invalid evidence, and questionable court decisions (Bernard et al., 2005). These processes potentially imperil the broader criminal justice system by degrading its ability to accurately and fairly try suspects involved in various cases. They also place suspect and defendant constitutional rights at risk by making the fate of their judgments contingent on questionable processes. 

The present lack of nationwide standards tends to result in uneven types of quality practiced within varied crime labs at the local, state, and federal level. The problems derived from these conditions can be viewed as systemic, resulting in the manifestation of various types of problems within various locations. Locating a solution to these problems would also require an equally systemic approach. 

The Argument in Favor of Accreditation and Standardization

Multiple analysts now identify the strategy of developing a singular model for forensic lab accreditation as an effective solution to this problem (Isenberg & Oien, 2018). This solution can be viewed as a practical means for addressing the issue across diverse forensic sites, while local, state, and federal criminal justice agencies retain autonomy in terms of their lab functioning and primary role. 

Accreditation will resolve many of the ongoing problems related to current crime lab inefficiencies, including the lack of standards that account for processing and analysis errors, as well as the potential for lab personnel to act in ways that are unscientific, unprofessional, or unethical. 

Proponents that justify this approach frequently note that other standards can help model and guide these emerging proposals. The standards presently used in DNA analysis can function as a model that structure and guide accreditation for crime labs across the nation (Gianelli, 2014). Burch and Durose (2016) also identified current standards applied in publically funded labs as a potential model for similar mandates adopted within other agencies.  DiRamio (2011) identified how the standards implemented by various accrediting systems seek to reduce human error and similar variables that disrupt forensic analysis processes. 

By applying the same standards that presently guide federal labs in other contexts, variables impacting the quality forensic outcomes can be reduced without having to engage in a costly set of individual interventions within various labs. Strategies include the formulation of a singular set of guidelines, applied to multiple settings.  Labs would be responsible for meeting all emerging compliance mandates, as well as having an auditing system in place that ensures these proposals have been adopted (Gabel & Heavenrich, 2014). Initiating strategies that will improve the quality of forensic assessment is of particular ethical importance, as it that protects the rights of accused during the course of both police investigations and court trials and proceedings (Gianelli, 2008). 

Argument Against Accreditation and Standardization

Negative aspects of this proposal include assessments of cost and associative risks factors, as well as the initial challenges of linking national labs together under a singular set of requirements and standards. A report from the New Scientist (2012) noted that since this proposal remains unproven in terms of its projected outcome, it may be more effective to develop multiple pilot programs as a way of mitigating risk factors from the current proposal.  While Gabel and Heavenrich (2014) ultimately argued in favor of implementing a nationwide set of accreditation standards that guide crime lab processes in multiple settings, they additionally identified the similar challenges stemming from this approach. While the report provided by the New Scientist (2012) identified emerging challenges of the proposal as a reason for not implementing the model, Gabel and Heavenrich (2014) contended that the risks of not doing so outweighed the benefits. 

Statement of Purpose

 The purpose of this report is to provide a preliminary assessment of a pilot program sponsored by The Department of Justice. This proposal would mandate the application and implementation of accreditation standards within all federally funded criminology forensic labs by 2020. Its proposals also call for a thorough review of current processes within these same institutions, and a statement of the challenges and requirements necessary for its implementation. This report will provide an assessment of its likely effectiveness in terms of its ability to address current problems within federal-based crime labs, its projected cost and implementation challenges, and its broader impact on other crime lab models across the U.S. The report will generate these findings through a dually-pronged qualitative research design that relies upon a meta-analysis framework, coupled with an interview-based methodology that derives insights from professionals working in federally funded and sponsored crime labs. 

Assessment of Key Problems

Analysts that debate the issue of nationwide crime lab accreditation as a suitable solution to ongoing problems tend to frame the proposal as a problem-solving strategy, regardless of whether or not the solution is effective or practicable. Multiple studies approach this broader debate by identifying the key problems that stem from the lack of accreditation standards that link the operations of state, federal, local, public, and private institutions. In this respect, Ciaramella’s (2017) listing and discussion of recent scandals involving the lack of standards in crime labs provides justification for researchers citing the need for overarching national standards across varied institutions. Gianelli’s analysis (2008; 2012) likewise present a similar contention by exploring the types of abuses generated by a lack of current standards, particularly in private labs, and by detailing the events impacting North Carolina’s state-operated labs respectively. 

Einseln’s (2012) study defines the issue by identifying its primary traits, its proposed justification, as well as its manifestation in current state and federal level contexts. Observations include defining the proposal as a strategy for curbing the risks of inefficient lab practices, and the impact of the quality of assessed evidence. 

Burch and Durose (2016) build upon this same premise by providing key examples of federal-level regulations that mandate homogenous standards within varied crime lab settings. The analysis provided by Weedn (2010) defined the issue by profiling the perspectives of various criminal justice professionals. The primary value of this study relates to its ability to present the same issue from multidimensional perspectives defined by the professional experience of those working within the broader criminal justice field and specifically within crime labs. While these studies do not address some of the controversies related to the issue in-depth, they nevertheless broadly present it as a methodology potentially capable of resolving reoccurring criminal justice field problems through a systemic set of applied principles (Kaci, 2016).

Gianelli and Friedman’s (2010) analysis provides detailed critiques of several institutions provided by the National Academy of Sciences, while Stephens’ report (2007) identifies how the phenomenon identified as the CSI effect can impact the ability of lab affiliated scientists to operate objectively within their scope of professional responsibility. Gianelli’s (2014) analysis contributes to this latter point of discussion emphasizing how cognitive bias can sometimes negatively impact the professional ability of a crime lab to view emerging evidence apart from cognitive bias. Collectively, these assessments align with Gianelli’s (2003) broader contention that systemic problems stemming from the lack of unifying standards require the implementation of guidelines that will seek to reduce these issues.  

The Proposal’s Viability

Other assessments explore the broader issue of how accreditation of crime labs leads to specific examples of error reduction within the sites currently impacted by these standards. The analysis provided by Burch and Durose (2016) and DiRamio (2011) both argued in favor of this proposal by noting how similar regulations operate within federally-run facilities. Whereas positive reports indicate how regulatory standards achieve the desired effects of reducing crime lab-related errors and in improving the types of evidence presented through criminological analysis, the New Scientist’s (2012) contention indicated that these former assessments cannot function as predictive models that prove that this model would work on a nationwide basis. 

Other assessments challenge this latter point by arguing that crime lab reform, in the specific context of implemented nationwide standards, will be worth the risk accrued in the short term by the proposal. Gabel and Heavenrich (2014) posited this argument directly, by contending that the longer-term gains of improved laboratory standards that are less prone to human error will outweigh the immediate risks associated with the model’s initial implementation. Isenberg and Oien (2018) presented an indirect argument supporting the same position by noting that nationwide crime lab standards represent an important strategy for achieving the desired outcome of improved evidence analysis standards. 

Findings Summary

The findings indicate two primary themes. First, ongoing human error-generated inefficiencies in crime labs represent an ongoing and systemic problem within the U.S. criminal justice system. Secondly, while the implementation of nationwide standards represents an unproven strategy, it will still yield positive results within desired field outcomes. 

These collective assessments broadly identify the need for multiple pilot programs that will adopt many of the principles described by proponents for developing national standards for varied crime labs, which will address some of the risk factors also identified by the critics of the proposals. The implementation of a pilot program will allow test models to represent a desirable solution that incorporates a middle ground-based approach to this overarching debate. It addresses the problems identified by critical assessment of current national crime lab standards, while also providing a system that both minimizes and critically evaluates likely associative risk factors. 

Research Methodology

Evaluating the correlation between the proposed accreditation of federally funded and sponsored crime labs, and the prevention of wrongful convictions due to related errors deriving from current crime lab inefficiencies, represent the critical issues that impact the ethical basis of research in the criminal science field. As Gianelli (2008) contended, crime labs in the U.S. currently lack a guiding set of standards that can address potential variables that lead to common lab-based errors.  This results in problems with production and reporting of case-based evidence. Without these controls, crime labs across the country are vulnerable to errors. Pilot programs for accreditation of crime labs across the country at local, state, and federal level can be viewed as a single step taken in the right direction. These pilot programs will model a similar, larger-scale nation implementation program. One strategy in achieving success and viability at this stage is through the use of multiple and diverse data sources (Rossi, Lipsey & Freeman, 2004). 

This study will provide a prospective evaluation of the Department of Justice (2019) proposal for the accreditation of federal crime labs, and examine the projective impact of crime lab accreditation and standardization as a strategy for preventing the errors generated by these sites. This requires a dual-pronged qualitative research methodology. A qualitative methodology has been selected on the basis of the ability of the model to yield richly in-depth forms of data and to identify prominent experiential or phenomenological themes deriving from a survey of real-world participants (Creswell, 2014). The specific research strategies selected for this study include a meta-analysis deriving from external research findings, coupled with an interview-based methodology that queries federal crime lab employees about their view of the proposal and its likelihood for success. 

Justifications for this approach include the following key points. A qualitative research design will help yield the types of predictive and in-depth assessments necessary for measuring the Department of Justice current proposal. A meta-analysis-based approach is used as a way of identifying critical theoretical-based findings deriving from external sources. As noted, the nationwide accreditation represents a complex and somewhat controversial issue. An applied meta-analysis model, accordingly, will serve to generate a set of critical and related thematic variables. These factors, in turn, can be applied to follow-up analyses deriving from the interview-based components applied within the research design.  

The interview-based framework will be relied upon. This approach represents an important strategy for two primary reasons. First, this data reflects the informed attitudes of federal crime lab professionals working in real-world settings. Secondly, this information is useful in generating practical findings that can be cross-examined with the data deriving from the meta-analysis. A survey will be delivered to 50 participants affiliated with federally-based crime labs across the United States. This allows the respondents to address issues from their perspectives informed by their professional experience and personal insights. It will also serve to contextualize many of the points of ambiguity and uncertainty related to the Department of Justice recommended solution. This data will also serve as a thematic counterpoint to the information taken from the meta-analysis: observations that will likely be abstract and theoretical in nature.

This proposed design will seek to achieve the following aims and outcomes. First, the design will seek to identify and assess many of the core variables potentially impacting the Department of Justice proposed strategy. The study will also seek to achieve this outcome through its dualistically constructed model: a framework that evaluates this proposal from the point of view of both theoretical findings and from the practical considerations of professionals acquainted with current crime lab methodologies and standards. Secondly, this model will seek to balance the concerns of both theory and practice that often frame criminology-based research (Kaci, 2016). Reliance on a meta-analysis based approach generated through a substantive literature review will identify the themes identified by criminal justice-based researchers. Subsequent reliance on an interview-based framework will also serve to generate findings from professionals working in real-world based settings. The inclusion of an interview-based methodology will serve to balance theoretical findings and contentions through the practical insights generated by practitioners operating in crime labs. Conversely, theoretical findings may also provide insights that frame or contextualize the issues presented by the respondents.

Thirdly, this report will serve to balance the limitations associated with both models. Meta-analysis based assessments provide the key benefits of generating important and salient themes that derive from multiple studies examining the same issue (Creswell, 2014). Their primary drawback, however, relates to their inability to test or measure their assessments in real-world settings. Interview-based frameworks, conversely, provide the key advantage of presenting information specifically relevant to the respondents evaluated and to their immediate area of responsibility and influence. These same models, however, lack a framework for contextualizing respondent-based data through an external model. By connecting these two approaches, the researcher seeks to broaden the findings generated by both reports while also balancing their key observations and thematic point of emphasis.

Finally, the report will evaluate data from two primary perspectives. This includes an observation that will address the current strategy’s likely efficacy in the manner previously described: through the application of a meta-analysis, interview-based model, and a combined assessment of the applied methods. However, this analysis will also seek to apply these findings to longer-term outcomes by specifically assessing the likelihood of the model to act as a framework that guides and structures emerging, nationwide accreditation strategies. While this represents a secondary point of emphasis, it also represents an approach that could be vital for future studies.

Selected data collection techniques will include methodologies such as identifying the thematic points deriving from the literature examined within the meta-analysis framework and electronically collecting and storing interview data within a centralized location. Data analysis procedures will then consist of an individual evaluation both datasets, a cross-analysis procedure that will examine both assessments, as well as the reliance upon qualitative research software that will help identify key themes deriving from this cross-analysis. Data reliability is addressed by carefully reviewing both datasets twice before implementing cross analysis procedures. Data validity will also be ensured by retaining the information derived from both research methodologies and by preserving them for future analysis. 

This approach will address the political issues and concerns related to the topic by providing a broader assessment of the issues that allow for multiple perceptions and arguments. The real world and theoretical findings will be combined when seeking a consensus. Additionally, the interview-based methodology will allow for the generation internally diverse data by encouraging respondents to state their opinion based on key guiding issues. Both processes will ultimately yield a set of observations and associative recommendations that can be applied to future scenarios: the immediate task of applying the Department of Justice recommended standards to federally fund and sponsored crime labs, and that of developing a broader level system used to interconnect nationwide facilities under a similar set of unified compliance requirements.

Program Assessment

The following assessment provides an in-depth analysis of the Department of Justice`s current recommendations for accrediting all federally funded and sponsored crime labs by 2020. This solution represents a more feasible strategy to the problems associated with unaccredited crime labs in the national context, than the approach of linking together all labs across the country. However, this proposal also introduces several points of potential uncertainty that can impact its efficacy. Examples include potential cost-related variables, the challenges of interlinking diverse agency systems according to the same standards, and of shifting affiliated employees and personnel towards this newly emergent model. This assessment model will serve as a method of evaluating the proposed program’s likely outcomes, its associative risks, and points of consideration that may require further analysis prior to its implementation. This model will arrive at these broader points of emphasis through its evaluation of data generated through an applied meta-analysis and through its interview-based methodology.

Program Model Description

The Department of Justice current recommendation is to establish a set of accreditation-related requirements that will apply to all federally funded and sponsored federal forensic crime laboratories by 2020. Its specific requirements include the formulation of laboratory standards that address evidence gathering, analysis, and reporting procedures and that also outline unambiguous standards for Lab-affiliated personnel. The proposal is also comprehensive in nature, meaning that it will serve to monitor lab-based inputs, outputs, and broader holistic processes. Examples of the former would include the methodologies in terms of how lab personnel retrieve and document evidence, and prepare it for analysis. Output processing standards would also include the practices of properly labeling, storing, analyzing, and applying findings pertaining to specific types of evidence presented to various federal agencies. This recommendation differs in that while similar models govern the activities of individual agencies, this proposal would seek to monitor activity on part of multiple law enforcement and criminal justice agencies including the CIA, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and related organizations. The proposal would also connect its rigorous standards with specific recommendations for employee sanctions in cases where individuals violate its mandates. Its selected date of 2020 indicates the priority timeline indicated for the program`s introduction in diverse agencies, its expectations for minimal-level compliance, and the process of auditing sites in order to assess their progress in terms of adopting the mandates.

Meta-Analysis Thematic Applications

The task of protectively assessing the proposal first requires an application of its concept to an analytical model generated by a meta-analysis: a thorough assessment of external findings that identify critical themes related to the issue of national crime lab accreditation recommendations and processes. The key themes derived from this assessment include the need for broader proposals, the attendant need for proposal feasibly, and a means for evaluating a selected strategy`s impact through effective metrics and related methodologies (Gabel & Heavenrich, 2016). Need-based variables relate to the problems generated by unaccredited crime labs and the variable of feasibility also relates to the need to keep proposed solutions manageable. Similarly, requirements for metrics and similar evaluation methodologies also addresses the projective need for developing reliable and applicable models that can be used to monitor a program’s actual impact relative to its projected outcomes. 

In this instance, the Department of Justice proposal is a tangible solution to the broader problem, particularly as it impacts diverse federal agencies. Current trends in the area of law enforcement increasingly mandate the principles of information sharing across agency boundaries and joint action in addressing credible national security threats. Evidence processing and analysis represents one vital function, which makes the accreditation of multi-agency federal based labs operating across the U.S. a vital solution. This approach addresses broader level problems stemming from the lack of unified standards for forensic analysis and related functions, as well as the unique problems experienced by federal-based agencies.   

The proposal also identifies a solution that is relatively feasible. While the Department of Justice directives represent a larger-scale proposal that the organization seeks to accomplish in a relatively short period of time, this recommendation also derives from a set of conditions that are partially accommodated for a measure of this type. Presently, many federal agencies already abide by cross-departmental standards that require individual branches to adhere to the same compliance mandates. Extending these across broader departmental and interstate contexts will thus represent a challenge; however, it also represents a measure that can be achieved through careful forms of intra-agency planning and joint action. Another factor that makes this strategy tenable includes the Department of Justice directives to gradually implement its recommendations. Although federal based laboratories will need to broadly adopt a minimal set of standards by 2020, many presently do so through existing compliance models. The Department of Justice additionally provides a broader time-frame for agency adoption of more advanced mandates. The agency’s recommendation also includes a tangible set of criteria that can be used as a set of metrics that evaluate the individual department and broader intra-organizational forms of compliance. This methodology, in brief, can also be used as a means for ensuring that federal agencies achieve the goals set forth by the Department of Justice during a reasonable timeframe. This same feature also mitigates against financial and cost-based risks as it can ensure that the money allocated for this project`s fulfillment is being used to achieve specified processes.

Interview-Based Assessments

The proposal’s perspective and uncertain quality require the application of another research methodology to examine its potential efficacy. In order to align the data deriving from this portion of the research methodology, short answer questions are delivered to participants by connecting these inquiries with themes taken from the meta-analysis. Respondents addressed questions that addressed the proposal’s need, feasibility, and its likelihood for potential risk. This latter category incorporated questions that addressed specific issues related to the evaluation methods implemented within the proposal in addition to other potential risk-related factors.

Participant responses to questions associated with the Department of Justice proposal revealed the following information. First, approximately 92% of respondents indicated their belief that the proposal had value, and that it addressed key issues impacting the quality of forensic assessment in federally funded and supported labs. Secondly, 83% of respondents also identified their belief that the proposal would bring about notable improvements within these domains. 73% of the same group also stated their belief that this proposal would bring about notable improvements within their specific agencies or departments. Key examples in this category included the beneficial impact in the areas of data gathering, assessing, storage, and reporting. However, 17% indicated a belief that this proposal would not lead to specific improvements. The reasons cited included the complexity of the proposal, the challenges of implementing measures that will result in positive effects for all federal labs, and likely hidden cost variables that could negatively impact outcomes.

The surveyed population also revealed a similarly positive attitude towards the strategy`s feasibility. In the survey, 92% of respondents stated their belief that the Department of Justice (2019) proposal was feasible, particularly given its layered time-based requirements and the fact that many federal labs presently have measures in place for following pre-existing compliance mandates. Also, 82% stated their belief that the program`s leaders and affiliated lab personnel would be able to implement this program despite likely challenges such as apparent and likely risk factors that might impede the program’s implementation or its later-term efficacy. Finally, 28% identified potential risk factors that might impede the proposal`s achievement of its targeted objectives.

In identifying potential risk factors, the population noted that the following variables might pose specific barriers to the plan`s completion and for its achievement of projected outcomes. In the survey, 53% noted that the project`s complexity represents a specific concern and another 38% cited the narrower challenge of interlinking varied organizations together. Further, 13% also identified cost-related factors as principle challenges. As previously noted, a majority of respondents stated their belief that the program would be feasible regardless of the challenges encountered. Another 81% also stated that the role of metrics and evaluative methodologies represented an important feature that would help planners align areas of projected and actual program outcomes. 

Comparative Findings

A comparative analysis of data deriving from both assessments revealed the following observations. The program outcomes appear to be feasible given their narrowed point of emphasis and given the Department of Justice flexible timeline in mandating joint crime lab accreditation by 2020. As previously noted, affected agencies potentially benefit from their previous implementation of similar standards, and from the shared points of intra-agency objectives and associative directives. The program can also be viewed as a suitable approach that addresses a systemic-level problem through a limited and potentially effective solution. While the proposed solution addresses specific needs associated with federal agencies, it potentially presents a model that can be adopted by other programs. In a longer-term context, this plan might serve as a potential blueprint that can guide nationwide accreditation processes. In the immediate term, findings from both datasets indicate its potential for improving criminal justice processes across federal-level agencies. 

Budgetary and Timeline Factors

The Department of Justice current proposal is to establish a core set of accreditation standards for diverse federal labs operating in multi-agency contexts by 2020. This proposal would specifically include the interlinking of all federally funded and sponsored labs by that targeted date. Accordingly, the agency has identified February of 2020 as the initial deadline for affected labs to adopt this policy. The Department of Justice has also identified later dates as a target for more advanced forms of joint agency planning. As part of its initial program, the Department of Justice is also operating under a budget of $1.3 billion that will be allocated to multiple labs as a way of directing initial accreditation processes.

Conclusion

Ongoing problems related to crime lab standard fragmentation indicate a strong need for gradual reform that would, ultimately, lead to the broader nationalization of labs across jurisdictions.  While this proposal is somewhat high risk in nature, the benefits to the criminal justice system and those potentially impacted by the errors of today’s system are outweighed by those unknowns. Mitigation of the unknown will require methodical implementation of pilot programs on a smaller level to address the cost and process issues as the program progresses.  The Department of Justice solution to this dilemma, by integrating the work of federal crime labs by 2020, represents a tangible approach to the problem that may generate both short and longer-term benefits.

References

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