Houston Forensics Lab Emerges as National Model for Reform

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The Houston Forensic Science Center (HFSC), once consumed by years of mismanagement, neglect, and corruption, has now become an unusually well-insulated, well-oiled, and well-funded machine that has prompted reform efforts around the country, reports the Christian Science Monitor. The lab now operates independently, outside of – and on an equal footing with – police, prosecutors, and other players in Houston’s justice system. The 208-person staff – three-quarters of which is female, with an average age of 32 – has a roughly $30 million budget that funds a “full service” laboratory, with sections for toxicology, DNA, firearms, and latent prints, among other disciplines. Most of the country’s roughly 400 crime labs remain inside law enforcement agencies, with constrained budgets and staff. The presumed infallibility of forensics was challenged by a 2009 National Academy of Sciences report,  stating that when it came to “matching” evidence from a crime to a specific individual or source, no forensic method besides nuclear DNA analysis has “the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty” make those matching claims.

Since 1989, bad forensic science has contributed to a quarter of 2,700-plus exonerations nationwide, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Independence from law enforcement was key to the city’s creation of HFSC in 2014. But in spinning off HPD’s crime lab and CSU, officials went even further. They gave HFSC a corporate, quasi-governmental structure. The result is not only that a scientist, rather than a law enforcement officer, is in charge; but also that the facility has a bigger budget with a larger, higher-paid, better-equipped staff than most crime labs with less bureaucracy.

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