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Forensic Sciences

Special Feature

Overview

A man wearing gloves and a lab coat and looking at a microscope slide in a science lab. A woman is in the background.

The term "forensic science" covers a broad range of forensic disciplines, each with its own set of technologies and practices. Some are laboratory based, while others revolve around expert interpretation of observed patterns.

Across the country, crime laboratories are expected to provide criminal justice stakeholders with consistent and high-quality services spanning multiple domains. Yet many laboratories may have limited resources and constrained budgets.

This issue is evidenced by the backlog of sexual assault kits (SAK) that some jurisdictions are struggling with.

A SAK is the cornerstone of any sexual assault investigation, potentially holding critical DNA evidence for law enforcement. The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) National Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) is one effort aimed at reducing the backlog of SAKs. As of December 2019, SAKI efforts have led to more than 100,000 SAKs being inventoried and nearly 62,000 sent for testing.

To better enable laboratories to identify and address inefficiencies, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) supported the development of Project FORESIGHT, which aids labs in analyzing internal work processes. Project FORESIGHT has been shown to provide laboratories with data-driven insights that better guide decision making for improved management of operations.

While DNA evidence may be the most well-known type of forensic evidence, samples often encountered in mass disasters and missing person cases can present major challenges for forensic scientists since they contain degraded or limited DNA. A study supported by NIJ evaluated a promising technique to make fragmented DNA more readable and a method to help pull individual profiles from mixed samples.

An unforeseen effect of the introduction of DNA profiling has been the reopening of cold cases. In some instances, DNA test results have exonerated those convicted of the offenses and resulted in their release from prison. Through the Prosecuting Cold Cases Using DNA program, BJA provides funding to support the prosecution of such cases and decrease the number of these cases awaiting prosecution.

DNA technology and forensic science, as a whole, have revolutionized the criminal justice system. These methods have given police and the courts a means of identifying the perpetrators of rapes, murders, and other crimes with a very high degree of confidence.

Visit the following pages for additional information and resources produced or sponsored by the Office of Justice Programs and other federal agencies: