Dozens of crime lab scandals have erupted around the U.S. over the last decade that have required thousands of cases to be reviewed, reversed or retried. The U.S. Justice Department this week announced a plan to address the problem, saying it will begin requiring its prosecutors to only use evidence that is processed by accredited labs, reports PBS’s Frontline. Accreditation is voluntary for crime labs in most states, which means many lack outside oversight. In the Bureau of Justice Statistics' 2009 census of publicly-funded crime labs, 17 percent were unaccredited. Rates at private labs are believed to be far lower. The American Society of Crime Lab Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board, a primary forensics accreditor, says it has accredited 356 publicly-funded labs, but just 26 of the hundreds of private labs.
The new policy, announced by Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates to the National Commission on Forensic Sciences, is unlikely to precipitate an immediate overhaul of crime labs. It will directly affect only labs contracted by the DOJ that aren't already accredited, and it will only begin doing so in 2020. The new policy has a built-in loophole: Prosecutors are required to use accredited labs “when practicable,” a phrase Yates told the commission was not meant to be used loosely, but only when using those labs would cause great delay or excessive cost. Still, the announcement was praised by commission members, who favor universal accreditation. The commission was created in 2013 with a mandate to advise the DOJ on how to improve forensic sciences. “I think it's huge. It shows a commitment to actually improving forensic sciences,” said commission vice chairman Nelson Santos. “A large percentage of large labs are already accredited — it's really the smaller labs we're trying to get.”