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The Changing Role of Forensic Science

By: Colonel Kathleen M. Stevens, Illinois State Police Division of Forensic Science Articles

The role of forensic science in the criminal justice arena is drastically changing. In the past, forensic science analysis often entered into the picture near the end of the criminal investigative process- after the crime, after the investigation, after the arrest of a suspect, but before prosecution. The role of forensic science enters the picture immediately after a crime is committed to assist investigators in developing leads and/or identify possible suspects. Now the forensic work oftentimes precedes an arrest. This role change, which substantially increases the significance of forensic science in the criminal investigative process, is mainly due to two factors: the increase awareness of forensic science and advances in technology.

Popular television shows such as Forensic Files, Cold Case Files, and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, have had a profound effect on the public, which includes the police, defense, prosecution, judges and juries, in regards to their expectations of evidence collection, analysis, and prosecution in court. Newspaper articles abound with information, and sometimes inaccurate information is released upon the unsuspecting public. After all, the objective of the media is to attract viewers; listeners and readers, not necessarily to educate on the advances and limitation of forensic science. To obtain a realistic perspective of the role of forensic science in the criminal justice system, understanding forensic science can/cannot do is important. This understanding is often at odds with the dramatic portrayals of most television programs.

The “CSI Effect” has created significant pressure in the forensic science laboratory system and quite a phenomenon in courthouses across the nation. In shows such as CSI, within hours the forensic science laboratory returns results to the police so they can determine whether to charge or released a suspect. In real life forensic testing, especially in complicated cases, analysis can take days, weeks, or even months. Unfortunately the criminal justice prosecutors and police because often they cannot obtain results from the laboratory quickly enough to determine whether to charge to release a suspect. When police agencies rely solely on physical evidence to make the determination, an innocent person may end up in jail or a guilty suspect may not be apprehended.

Advance in technology have significantly increase the capabilities of forensic science laboratories. "Cold cases," those which have been classified as "dead" or "unsolved," have had life breathed into them because of these advances in DNA technology. The power of DNA and use of the DNA database or Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) have resulted in an effective crime fighting tool for the law enforcement. Matching known offender DNA profiles to unknown DNA crime scene profiles or matching unknown DNA crime scene profiles to other unknown DNA crime scene profiles provides a method to identify a suspect and/or provide additional investigative information which may result in solving cases preciously classified as "cold cases." These powerful tools also have resulted in increasing number of cases presented to the forensic science laboratory system for analysis.

Changes in forensic science have impacted not only the way forensic science results affect case resolution, but what type of evidence can be analyzed from crime scene. For example, changes in DNA technology have allowed analysis of smaller samples and degraded samples i.e., cigarette butts or sweat from a tee-shirt that otherwise might have been ignored. Because of the increased sensitivity of DNA analysis, Police Officer and Crime Scene Investigators must be aware of the potential for cross contamination adopt clean techniques when collecting and handling evidence.

The CSI Effect has not only impacted the judicial system, but also has changed quite a stir in the academic world. Administrator of colleges and universities throughout the country are seeing increase enrollment in the forensic science course and/or are adding forensic science programs to the curricula. Unfortunately, these programs may provide only a theoretic basis for forensic scientist and not the operational experience of working in a laboratory. As a result, there is little impact on the length of training required by an operational forensic science laboratory once a college graduate is hired

What does all this mean? The demands placed upon the forensic science laboratories the nation have increased. The resource needed to meet the demands have also increased; however, the availability of these resources is finite. Quite simply, more evidence is being received than laboratory staff, equipment, and facilities can handle—resulting in delays and case backlogs. This situation may be perceived as mismanagement of the laboratory when, in fact, the laboratory has been overwhelmed by the system.

Strategies used by forensic science laboratory management in the past to manage case workloads are no longer satisfactory to the public. Because of the “CSI Effect,” the expectation is that DNA evidence will always be collected at every crime scene and the evidence will be analyzed within 48 hours. This simply is not the case. All typed of evidence are collected but all evidence may not be analyzed. The evidence is prioritized and the most probative is analyzed. In most situations investigative question have a direct impact regarding which evidence is analyzed and in what priority.

At some point in the future, crime scene investigators will be able to collect evidence from a crime scene, i.e., latent print or biological specimen, digitize the information via a hand-held device, identify a profile, and send the evidence to the laboratory for comparison to known latent prints or the DNA database. The accomplishment of forensic scientist are impressive, but there are limitations. In addition to increase resources, technological advancements are needed before the role of forensic science can be effectively moved from the “end” to the “front” of the investigative process in the criminal justice system.