He convened a panel of scientific advisers to study the techniques used by law enforcement; to identify best practices; to see which methods were sound and which were junk science. The results were alarming for those worried about robbing innocents of liberty. Dubious methods were everywhere in analysis of bite marks, firearms, shoe prints, hair fiber, blood spatter, and fingerprints. There were even problems in efforts to analyze samples containing DNA from more than one person.
None of the problems surprised Radley Balko, who covers the criminal justice system for the Washington Post. Years earlier, in the course of reporting for Reason that helped to free a man wrongly incarcerated on Mississippi’s death row, Balko had stumbled on a so-called expert in bite-mark analysis whose scandalous conduct as a state medical examiner and expert witness over the course of two decades illustrated the astonishing degree of nonsense the state could pass off as “science” in criminal trials.
Subsequent reporting only confirmed Balko’s suspicion that the criminal justice system is rife with unqualified forensic specialists, bad methodology, and cognitive bias. His succinct description of long overdue reforms is here. When the panel convened by Obama published its scathing report in September 2016, Balko hoped a least some overdue reforms would finally be attempted.
But months later, when Obama was about to leave office, Balko wrote about his White House’s failure to move aggressively and the dissenting voices from within his Justice Department, including dismissive comments from then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
That report, along with others and an administration that seemed unusually equipped to take it seriously, presented a small window in which to reform a system. That window is about slam shut. And we’re about to be governed by a new administration that seems likely to board it up, wallpaper it and overlay it with brick. This wasn’t just a missed opportunity; it was a catastrophe. And it’s difficult to overstate the consequences.
Those prescient words bring us back to this week’s news. Again, here is the Washington Post:
In a statement Monday, Sessions said he would not renew the National Commission on Forensic Science, a roughly 30-member advisory panel of scientists, judges, crime lab leaders, prosecutors and defense lawyers chartered by the Obama administration in 2013… The announcement came as the commission began its last, two-day meeting before its term ends April 23, and as some of its most far-reaching final recommendations remained hanging before the department.
Sessions, a former federal prosecutor, is bringing the matter back “in house,” though DOJ staffers have institutional incentives to avoid upsetting the status quo, and have utterly failed to sufficiently address the problem from within across decades of misconduct. The result is not only the imprisonment of the aforementioned innocents, but also uncaught criminals in those cases roaming the streets.