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National Criminal Justice Reference Service
Added to archive August 7, 2003

Forensic Science

The extensive use of biological evidence to identify victims and offenders has had a significant bearing, in recent years, on the course of law enforcement investigations, criminal court proceedings, and victim service provider issues. DNA evidence arguably has become the most well-known type of forensic evidence, probably because it can be uniquely identifying and because it is the genetic blueprint of the human body. For these reasons, DNA evidence has become a highly influential piece of the crime puzzle (The Future of Forensic DNA Testing: Predictions of the Research and Development Working Group, 2000).

Although DNA cannot determine a motive for a crime, it can be an important part of any law enforcement investigation, particularly one in search of an all-important lead. For example, DNA evidence may place a particular individual at a crime scene (What Every Law Enforcement Officer Should Know About DNA Evidence, 1999). Forensic scientists also use DNA evidence to identify human remains, determine paternity, and study human populations and medical diseases.

Technological advances that have made it more reliable and efficient have increased the popularity of DNA evidence. For example, the time needed to determine a sample's DNA profile has dropped from between 6 and 8 weeks to between 1 and 2 days. Future advancements may decrease this time to as little as a few hours or even a few minutes (Improved Analysis of DNA Short Tandem Repeats With Time-of- Flight Mass Spectrometry, 2001).

There has also been an increased acceptance and use of DNA information in the courtroom. DNA evidence can help to convict the guilty, acquit the innocent, or exonerate those wrongly accused or convicted. This does not necessarily mean that DNA evidence alone can determine a verdict. DNA evidence is used often to corroborate eyewitness testimony or other evidence. The increased use of DNA evidence also has made it important for victim service providers to become familiar with DNA terminology and DNA evidence collection, examination, and preservation procedures (Understanding DNA Evidence: A Guide for Victim Service Providers, 2001). (Brochure)

To maximize the value of DNA evidence in the criminal justice system, the National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence was chartered by the Attorney General in 1997 and concluded work in 2001. The Commission identified three limitations to the full and effective use of DNA technology: (1) the current backlog of untested convicted offender database samples, (2) the lack of appropriate prioritization of database sample collection and testing, and (3) the limited use of DNA in non-suspect cases. To address these problems, the Commission in 1999 recommended the creation of federal grants that would facilitate the reduction of both collected and uncollected database samples, encourage the development of effective systems for the collection of those samples, and provide law enforcement agencies with direction and guidance to effectively use DNA in non-suspect cases. These recommendations subsequently led to NIJ's establishment in FY 2000 of two important initiatives: the Convicted Offender DNA Backlog Reduction Program and the No-Suspect Casework DNA Backlog Reduction Program. For FYs 2000-02 combined, Congress has appropriated more than $60 million to fund these programs to reduce or eliminate DNA laboratory backlogs in the U.S., populate the national database, and solve crimes.

Forensic science is defined as the application of science to law. Forensics can encompass all forms of science and does not stop with DNA analysis. It can involve the study of geological and entomological research, arson and explosive investigations, audio and visual examinations, and trace analysis of substances. Forensic scientists are the trained experts who analyze the evidence collected by crime scene investigators. The Latin word forensts translates in English as "a public forum or place to debate and argue." Thus, the general duty of forensic science and the experts within the field is to debate the issue and apply new techniques and findings in a court of law.

To address the reach of forensic science across the entire criminal justice system, NCJRS—on behalf of the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs—has compiled a list of resources to help provide a basic foundation of knowledge in forensic science.

The latest information and statistics pulled from a wide variety of forensic science publications.

This document is not necessarily endorsed by the Almanac of Policy Issues. It is being preserved  in the Policy Archive for historic reasons.

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