In a piece published yesterday on The Washington Posts’s criminal justice blog “The Watch,” Radley Balko points to some pervasive incentive problems in state crime labs, and offers up suggestions for best practice reform. Referring to a number of cases in which state forensic analysts were incentivized by prosecutors to only report desired results or to obscure test results that did not support the prosecution’s case, Balko writes:
“Crime lab analysts are supposed to be neutral parties interested only in getting the science right. But the system is often structured in a way that makes them part of the prosecution’s ‘team.’ In fact in many jurisdictions, crime labs actually get paid per conviction, not per analysis—about as clear a perversion of objectivity as one can imagine.”
Balko refers to suggestions put forth by Professor Roger Koppl, who is a faculty fellow in Syracuse University’s Forensic and National Security Sciences Institute, as potential measures to take in correcting many of the pervasive issues in state crime labs. Among Koppl’s suggestions is ‘cross-lab redundancy,’ which calls for a checks and balances system where evidence would be chosen at random for additional testing at outside labs and then compared with state lab results. According to Balko, “Even if [an analyst] reports directly to the prosecutor, that analyst’s prime objective is to get the test right. If he doesn’t, sooner or later he’s going to get caught, embarrassed and possibly lose his job. Without this reform, the incentives are dramatically different.” Koppl also encourages crime lab independence from law enforcement agencies and providing criminal defendants who cannot afford their own experts with the right to a forensic expert just as they have the right to counsel.
According to Balko, even when analysts are not complicit in corrupt practices, cognitive bias often leads to skewed results and there is no system in place to prevent these mishaps. While the outside scientific community takes precautions (such as double-blind testing and peer review) to prevent such mistakes, forensic science lacks this critical component. “Forensic analysis isn’t quite the same as the scientific method, mostly because it has different objectives,” writes Balko. “But if we’re going to give it the weight of science, we need to find a way to subject it to basic scientific principles.”