This year’s annual National Institute of Justice conference is emphasizing technology issues. Several of its panelists say the “C.S.I.” effect is causing jurors and the general public to expect much more from forensic science than the justice system is now prepared to deliver. The conference ends today in Northern Virginia. One positive impact of the “C.S.I.” television programs is that there is more academic interest in the subject, says William Berger, police chief of Palm Bay, Fl. Berger notes that 180 students at his city’s high school are taking a forensics course.
On the minus side, Berger says many of those working in forensic science jobs are among the lowest-paid employees in the justice system, with annual salaries in the $20,000-$30,000 range common. “The turnover rate is high; they’re going to move on,” he says. Berger notes that judges are inadequately trained to handle cases with forensic issues. District Attorney Mitchell Morrissey of Denver laments that law schools don’t train students on forensics, either, meaning that prosecutors must pick up the slack. An untrained prosecutor might send 100 evidence items to be tested instead of focusing on a handful likely to yield usable results. A Denver program emphasizing DNA evidence in burglaries has resulted in the prosecution of 50 career burglars who average 242 crimes annually. The typical sentence in such cases has jumped to 12.5 years from 6 months.