WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Monday he is ending an Obama-era partnership with independent scientists that aimed to improve the reliability of forensic science, as longstanding concerns remain about the quality of such evidence in court cases.
The Justice Department will not renew the National Commission on Forensic Science, a panel of judges, defense attorneys, researchers and law enforcement officials that had been advising the attorney general on the use of scientific evidence in the criminal justice process. The department will instead appoint an in-house adviser and create an internal committee to study improvements to forensic analysis, Sessions said.
Their tasks will include a broad look at the personnel and equipment needs of overburdened crime labs.
“As we decide how to move forward, we bear in mind that the department is just one piece of the larger criminal justice system,” said Sessions in a statement, adding that most forensic science is done by state and local laboratories and used by local prosecutors.
The Obama administration formed the commission in 2013 to address wide-ranging concerns about problematic forensic techniques.
The Justice Department also is reconsidering an effort launched last year to review forensic sciences practiced by the FBI. That review sought to determine whether other scientific disciplines have been tainted by flawed testimony, a problem that surfaced in 2015 when the Justice Department revealed that experts had overstated the strength of their evidence in many older cases dating back decades involving microscopic hair analysis.
The disbanding of the commission was yet another way in which Sessions is shifting away from his Obama-era predecessors, who pushed for changes in forensic science and tried to establish federal standards. Last year, for example, acting on the commission’s recommendations, the Justice Department announced a new code of professional responsibility for its forensic science laboratories and also cautioned its examiners and prosecutors to use restraint in discussing the strength of their findings, among other standards.
Sessions, who frequently articulates a tough-on-crime agenda, called the availability of accurate forensic analysis “critical to integrity in law enforcement, reducing violent crime and increasing public safety.” He said the Justice Department would seek public comment on how to improve crime labs and “strengthen the foundations of forensic science.”
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said it was disappointed by the move. Association President Barry Pollack said the commission was important because it allowed “unbiased expert evaluation of which techniques are scientifically valid and which are not.”