House and Senate Democrats proposed legislation on Thursday that would establish federal grants to help create forensic-science standards, in an effort to help reduce wrongful convictions based on flawed forensic results. The Forensic Science and Standards Act, from Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), would provide $200 million over the next five years in grants that boost forensic science research, and nearly $100 million in that same period that the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) would use to develop standards in the field.
Rockefeller said on Thursday that the bill is partly a reaction to a 2009 report that said many forensic science disciplines have not established “either the validity of their approach or the accuracy of their conclusions.” He also cited a series of articles in The Washington Post about this issue, as well as an April editorial calling for a Justice Department review of convictions based on forensic evidence.
“[A] July 11 story reports that the Justice Department and the FBI have now launched such a review,” Rockefeller said. “The National Academy of Sciences, The Washington Post, the Innocence Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, among others, have all called for strengthened forensic science and standards.”
The bill, S. 3378 in the Senate and H.R. 6106 in the House, would set up the grant program, and would require the National Science Foundation to direct these grants to two forensic science research centers. It would also create a system of challenges and allow the awarding of prizes “to stimulate innovative and creative solutions to satisfy the research needs and priorities” identified in the bill.
It would also task NIST with developing forensic science standards, in coordination with the two research centers.
Rockefeller’s bill has no co-sponsors, but Johnson’s bill in the House is sponsored by Reps. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) and Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.). The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on July 18 on the bill.