The U.S. Department of Justice is looking for a little outside help standardizing the science that puts some people behind bars and sets others free. The department, along with a U.S. science body, is putting together a National Commission on Forensic Science, the agencies announced recently.

The commission will create a professional code for forensic scientists, set certification requirements and advise the Attorney General, the announcement said. In addition, the National Institute of Standards and Technology will double-check existing forensic science standards and develop new ways of making forensic measurements.

45% of wrongful convictions stemmed from faulty forensics.
The announcement follows nationwide discoveries of sloppily run crime labs. It also comes after years of evidence that many forensic-science techniques need dramatic improvement and sometimes send innocent people to prison–or worse.

When we say years of evidence, we mean years. In 2009, the National Research Council reported that forensic science needed stronger standards. For some forensic techniques, for example, there’s no single standard for what constitutes a match between crime-scene evidence and the control; instead, interpretations vary from lab to lab.

That same year, the nonprofit Innocence Project published research that suggested 45 percent of wrongful convictions stemmed from faulty forensics. (Another report, by the former director of forensic sciences for the Michigan State Police, says the figure is more like 11 percent.)

The National Research Council report suggested the U.S. form a national institute just for forensic science. The new commission will perform many of the functions the research council suggested.

The commission will have about 30 people, including forensic scientists, academic scientists, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges. The National Register will publish a notice asking people to apply for membership.