We’ve all seen the scenes from TV’s crime dramas. In a bright white lab coat, the forensic scientist examines the evidence from a high profile burglary or heist, arrives at the solution, then confidently presents his findings as fact. It makes for gripping television, but unfortunately, it is not indicative of a real life crime lab. In reality, lab technicians can never be one hundred percent confident in their findings, and elements of human error are always a possibility.
In fact, the human element of a crime lab was what led two researchers to examine the funding systems currently in place for many state crime labs. The researchers discovered that many state crime labs are funded on a per-conviction basis — a shocking revelation that throws the reliability of a crime lab’s findings into question.
When a crime lab processes evidence that results in a guilty verdict, the guilty party is assessed a “laboratory fee,” an amount of money intended to compensate the lab for the work they’ve done. However, when a not guilty verdict is returned, the lab receives nothing. The fear, then, is that technicians may be working under a bias that tends to favor incriminating evidence.
In Florida, for example, one crime lab was given $50 for each guilty verdict or plea related to drunk driving or boating. The lab was given $100 each time they processed evidence in a drug-related case — but again, only if the case ended with a conviction.
This system apparently exists in many labs across the country, and criminal defense advocates are treating it as a cause for legitimate concern. Some advocates have already suggested a number of potential reforms, policies that would sever the connection between convictions and crime lab funding.
Source: The Huffington Post, “New Study Finds That State Crime Labs Are Paid Per Conviction” Radley Balko, Aug. 29, 2013