The criminal justice system is inherently a human system. Perpetrators and victims, police, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges all have the benefit and detriment of being human beings.
The difficulty that poses is that human beings, even well-meaning ones, can be wrong. Forensic evidence, by contrast, can help build faith in the system when it is collected, tested and used properly. Irrefutable proof like DNA evidence can help ensure the guilty do not walk free and the innocent either don’t go to prison in the first place – or are quickly exonerated if wrongly imprisoned.
According to the United States Department of Justice, there are over 250,000 unsolved murders in the United States, with nearly 6,000 unsolved murders every year. But in recent years, the expansion of DNA evidence collection and more robust testing has solved decades-old murders and even resulted in the apprehension of serial killers. These databases have also been found to have a substantial deterrent effect on crime overall.
Strong investment in forensic evidence isn’t just about apprehending more offenders and putting them in prison, though. According to the Innocence Project, as of April 2023, 575 wrongly convicted people were exonerated through the use of DNA evidence. This included 21 individuals previously sentenced to death and many more serving long sentences.
One such person was Maurice Hastings who, prior to his exoneration after long-untested DNA evidence was finally reviewed and implicated someone else, had served 38 years. That’s nearly four decades in California prisons for a murder and two attempted murders he did not commit. He’ll never get back the time he languished in prison, but at least now he is free to live the rest of his life in freedom.
The delay in DNA testing resulted not only in an injustice to Hastings but prevented justice from taking place. The man whose DNA matched never faced justice for his crimes, because he died in prison in 2020, before the DNA test implicated him. Before going to prison, however, he committed more crimes that could have been prevented if his DNA was tested as soon as the technology became available.
However, limitations persist. Insufficient investment in forensic laboratories has left well over 100,000 rape kits in a nationwide backlog of rape kits. According to the Department of Justice, as much as 23% of forensic evidence for unsolved crimes has not been tested. That untested evidence represents victims who are not receiving justice and a criminal who has not had to answer for the crimes committed.
In order to maximize the benefits of forensic evidence, state and local lawmakers ought to increase funding to labs and invest in new technologies. Lawmakers should also take steps to improve DNA databases. One such reform is to implement laws that require DNA collection upon felony arrest. Currently, all but 16 states have some type of law like that but they vary considerably in terms of what does and does not qualify. Aligning the states that already have a law on the books with best practices – while passing these laws in the states that don’t – would go a long way toward improving state DNA databases.
Finally, states should expand forensic training programs to minimize errors and expand the available pool of employees for labs. The program which was just launched at Marshall University in West Virginia is an example of this type of education
If done properly, expanded DNA databases and well-run forensic labs can be important tools toward a better and fairer justice system – with fewer errors and more closure for victims.