To understand why the United States is the most incarcerated nation in the world, all aspects of the legal system must be scrutinized. One of the least considered points of corruption is the crime lab.
A recent study found that crime labs across the country are literally being incentivized to turn out results that will be favorable to prosecutors in getting criminal convictions. Some say that this introduces a point of compromise in a process that is supposed to be free of bias and partiality.
Its not hard to imagine why. Biased reward schedules are how animals are trained. When a performance is rewarded, a subject will produce more of it. When a performance is not rewarded, a subject will produce less of it.
Like a puppy being rewarded for performing a trick, the government rewards crime labs for “verifying” that unknown substances are illegal narcotics; for finding a driver’s blood alcohol content to be over a certain arbitrary number; for determining that a package of drugs is over a certain arbitrary weight so a more draconian charge can be imposed.
Impossible? Consider the recent corruption scandal in Massachusetts, in which a biased crime lab chemist used her position to intentionally forge test results, casting doubt over the validity of tens of thousands of cases.
Here’s what Roger Koppl and Meghan Sacks found in a study for the journal Criminal Justice Ethics:
Funding crime labs through court-assessed fees creates another channel for bias to enter crime lab analyses. In jurisdictions with this practice the crime lab receives a sum of money for each conviction of a given type. Ray Wickenheiser says, ‘‘Collection of court costs is the only stable source of funding for the Acadiana Crime Lab. $10 is received for each guilty plea or verdict from each speeding ticket, and $50 from each DWI (Driving While Impaired) and drug offense.’’
In Broward County, Florida, ‘‘Monies deposited in the Trust Fund are principally court costs assessed upon conviction of driving or boating under the influence ($50) or selling, manufacturing, delivery, or possession of a controlled substance ($100).’’
Several state statutory schemes require defendants to pay crime laboratory fees upon conviction. North Carolina General Statutes require, ‘‘[f]or the services of’’ the state or local crime lab, that judges in criminal cases assess a $600 fee to be charged ‘‘upon conviction’’ and remitted to the law enforcement agency containing the lab whenever that lab ‘‘performed DNA analysis of the crime, tests of bodily fluids of the defendant for the presence of alcohol or controlled substances, or analysis of any controlled substance possessed by the defendant or the defendant’s agent.’’
Illinois crime labs receive fees upon convictions for sex offenses, controlled substance offenses, and those involving driving under the influence. Mississippi crime labs require crime laboratory fees for various conviction types, including arson, aiding suicide, and driving while intoxicated.
Similar provisions exist in Alabama, New Mexico, Kentucky, New Jersey, Virginia, and, until recently, Michigan. Other states have broadened the scope even further. Washington statutes require a $100 crime lab fee for any conviction that involves lab analysis. Kansas statutes require offenders ‘‘to pay a separate court cost of $400 for every individual offense if forensic science or laboratory services or forensic computer examination services are provided in connection with the investigation.’’
In addition to those already listed, the following states also require crime lab fees in connection with various conviction types: Arizona, California, Missouri, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.
Could crime lab incentives corrupt the results of certain unscrupulous technicians? It would be naïve to believe it couldn’t.
Absolute impartiality should be maintained in the analysis of evidence. The integrity of the system, and the freedom of innocent people, depends on it. Crime labs should never be given preferential treatment for finding a certain result. Technicians should be isolated from the names and details of the cases, and audited for accuracy with periodic case-neutral samples.
An even better reform would be to stop imprisoning people for arbitrary reasons such as “possession” of a substance without permission.
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