The Unrealized Promise of Forensic Science

An Empirical Study of its Production and Use

by James M. Anderson, Carl F. Matthies, Sarah Michal Greathouse, Amalavoyal V. Chari

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In theory, forensic science provides independent, objective, dispassionate evidence in proceedings often charged with emotion and the failings of human recollection. But how does it work in practice? We collected data on the prevalence and use of forensic evidence in five jurisdictions across the United States. We also analyzed existing data on crime labs and conducted an experimental survey of prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys to measure the effect of forensic evidence on the plea-bargaining process. Our findings are sobering. Despite considerable investment in forensic databases and crime laboratory upgrades to improve capacity, forensic evidence is still being analyzed in only a small fraction of cases in which it is available. Moreover, it is typically used post-arrest to confirm suspicions rather than as an independent diagnostic tool to identify suspects. While forensic evidence is regularly used in homicides, its use is highly limited by resource constraints, resulting in long turnaround times for less serious offenses, which encourage police to and prosecutors rely on other types of evidence. As a result, the full potential of forensic evidence remains unrealized.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Research Questions and Methodology

  • Chapter Three

    Results

  • Chapter Four

    Conclusion

This research was conducted by RAND Justice, Infrastructure, and Environment.

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