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The Costs and Benefits of Forensics

Journal: Houston Law Review
Published: 2020
Primary Author: Brandon L. Garrett

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote that states can be laboratories for experimentation in law and policy. Disappointingly, however, the actual laboratories that states and local governments run are not a home for experimentation. We do not have adequate information about either the costs or the benefits of forensic testing or allocation of resources. Increased spending and expansion of crime laboratories has perversely accompanied growing backlogs. Poor quality control has resulted in a series of audits and even closures of crime laboratories. In response to these problems, however, some laboratories and some entire states have developed new approaches toward oversight. In this Article, I will describe the growth of crime labs and the resources dedicated to them, but also the backlogs that have resulted from far too much in the way of quantity. Second, I will discuss the problem of resource allocation in forensics, including the differing perspectives and interests of police and forensic agencies that should both be taken into account. Third, I will describe quality control challenges that have accompanied the explosion in the use of forensics. Fourth, I will describe how regulation could better address both resource allocation and quality control, as well as how the Houston Forensic Science Center has become a model for regulating both the quality and the quantity of forensics. Finally, I will ask why the federal government has not done more to help improve the quality of forensics even as it has helped to encourage overwhelming and unnecessary quantity.

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