Standards in the OSAC Registry—Improving Justice For All

Justice Talks

Submitting Authors: Mark Stolorow; Vincent Desiderio; Allison Getz; Crystal DeGrande; Steve Johnson; and John Paul Jones II

Published in 2009, the National Research Council (NRC) Report Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States — A Path Forward criticized the practice of forensic science in America for (among other things) its failure to have in place a network of nationally recognized, consensus-based standards with scientific merit. In 2014, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the United States Department of Justice (USDOJ) responded by creating the Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC) for Forensic Science to facilitate the development of high-quality standards and encourage the implementation of them by the forensic science community.

Implementation of standards on the OSAC Registry has a direct connection to the overall improvement of justice for all in the United States. So, how are the development of forensic science standards and implementation manifested in improving justice? Here are, at a minimum, five impactful ways that standards improve justice.

Harmonization of Forensic Practice Across Jurisdictions: The level of scientific rigor applied to evidence should not depend on the jurisdiction in which the evidence is collected. Standards, when implemented on a nationwide basis, ensure that a minimum level of consensus-built scientific rigor is applied to evidence in any jurisdiction. This standardization helps to ensure that courts are empowered to adhere to the same quality of scientific inquiry and the admissibility of expert forensic testimony can be applied more uniformly nationwide.

Improving the Reliability of Forensic Analysis and Interpretation: Using standards related to best practices for minimum qualifications and education of practitioners, applying scientifically based procedures, and limiting the results and interpretation to conclusions which are not overstated nor exaggerated, will lead to more objective, reliable and reproducible reports and expert testimony. The positive impact of improving the reliability of forensic science analysis and interpretation is that it minimizes bias and increases the likelihood of exonerating the innocent and convicting the guilty.

Minimizing Bias: Bias is real and a part of human nature. It can manifest during evidence collection, analysis, interpretation, report writing and expert testimony. Using high quality standards means that proactive procedures to minimize bias are built into the standard operating procedures implemented by forensic science service providers. Some common examples are effective ethics-based training for all scientific and administrative staff, and guidelines for effective technical and administrative review of casework. Such measures have a combined effect to reduce errors and provide a framework for consensus building to resolve disagreements in data interpretation among qualified forensic scientists. High quality standards recognize many of these pitfalls that have been studied and documented in the practice of forensic science, and incorporate measures specifically related to human factors to mitigate or minimize such bias.

Scientific and Technical Reviews (STRs): OSAC introduced the STR process in 2020 for the purpose of providing subject matter expert and peer review to all relevant proposed standards during development. STRs provide an independent technical review of drafted standards going through the OSAC Registry approval process. The positive impact is that the review process for standards is more rigorous in ensuring scientific validity by taking note of potential uncertainty and providing limitations where appropriate. Among other benefits of the STR process is reducing possible bias and improving objectivity, reliability, and reproducibility of results.

Reflecting New Changes to Federal Rules of Evidence 702 (FRE 702): Earlier this year, the Federal government updated FRE 702 with amended language to ensure that expert witnesses do not exaggerate their opinions. Specifically, the amended FRE 702 states "The expert's opinion reflects a reliable application of the principles and methods to the facts of the case." The official notes accompanying this change reflect the intention to limit the testimony to that which is scientifically supportable. If the forensic science service provider giving testimony has implemented current nationally recognized standards, the courts can have increased confidence that the testimony will conform with the amended FRE 702.  Adherence to FRE 702 and the implementation of standards on the OSAC Registry can positively impact improving justice for all.

The development and implementation of nationally recognized standards have far ranging positive impacts for improving justice for all across the entire spectrum of forensic science testing, reporting and expert testimony.

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