The Trump Justice Department will no longer work with a panel of independent scientists, judges, and attorneys to improve the country’s forensic-science practices, attorney general Jeff Sessions said Monday (April 10).
It’s the latest step of away from an Obama administration legacy in criminal justice reform.
Sessions said in a memo that he will not renew the term for the National Commission on Forensic Science, a body formed under Obama in 2013, the Washington Post reports. The move comes after the Justice Department announced it would reconsider its consent-decree agreements with police departments across the country, a reform initiative spearheaded by the Obama administration, and after a decision to rescind a directive to phase out the use of private prisons for federal prisoners.
The attorney general acted shortly after a group of the nation’s top criminologists wrote an open letter asking him to prioritize science in criminal-justice policies, and to draw on the knowledge of experts. Another letter from six researchers on April 6 urged the department to renew the commission’s two-year term.
The National Commission on Forensic Science was created to examine methods and standards used in US crime labs. In 2009 the National Academy of Sciences said forensic science needed a complete overhaul, questioning the reliability of widely used types of evidence such as bite marks, hair analysis, and fingerprints. Forensic science is not the end-all, be-all, the report emphasized, blaming TV shows such as CBS’s CSI franchise for creating an impression of infallibility.
The commission started its last two-day meeting on April 10. Notably, the Post reports, the commission voted 16-15 not to recommend its renewal, but members of the commission had expressed their concern about leaving scientific oversight to the Justice Department itself.
Wrongful convictions are among the most visible justice-system inadequacies in a country that incarcerates more people than anyone else in the world, and which remains among the top executioners. Last year was a record one for exonerations in the US, with 166 catalogued by the National Registry of Exonerations.
Sessions said the commission’s mandate was completed. From now on, the federal effort to improve practices in the field will be led by a forensic advisor he appoints and by an internal task force. “The more effective forensic system we have, the better equipped we are to solve crimes, more swiftly absolving the innocent and bringing the guilty to justice,” his memo says.
According to the Post, the department also suspended a wide review of testimony from FBI experts, after it found that they for years offered in court misleading accounts about two forensic techniques used by the agency—one regarding the chemical composition of bullets and the other related to using hair analysis.