Welcoming Remarks at the Third Annual National Conference on the Future of DNA

by Jeremy Travis, Director
National Institute of Justice

May 21, 1998
Regal Knickerbocker Hotel
Chicago, Illinois

Good morning:

I very pleased to join you this morning to kick off the Third Annual National Conference on the Future of DNA. It is great to see so many people who have been part of the larger national effort to bring the powerful technology of DNA science to serve the interests of justice — and I am very proud of the role that my colleagues at the National Institute of Justice have played in supporting your work. I also wish to add my thanks to the Illinois State Police — and Director Terry Gainer — and the Midwestern Association of Forensic Scientists — and President Michael Camp — for their cosponsorship of this conference.

My purpose this morning is to take a moment to reflect on the accelerating speed of change in this field — and to talk about how we at the National Institute of Justice are thinking about our role in supporting your work.

Let's take stock of where we are in the development of a new national capacity to harness the power of DNA. A short ten years ago, in 1988, there were only three private laboratories — and no public laboratories — analyzing crime scene evidence for DNA markers. There were no guidelines, no standards, no accrediting bodies. Today, ten years later, there are at least eight private labs, one federal lab, and at least thirty state and local laboratories that can conduct DNA analysis on forensic evidence. They are now using generally accepted guidelines for quality control and quality assurance developed by a Technical Working Group. The guidelines developed by the DNA Advisory Board will provide direction to their work. And they can be accredited through ASCLAD, the American Society of Crime Lab Directors Accreditation Board established specifically for forensic DNA analysis.

The profession has come a long way in ten short years — both in terms of the capacity to meet a growing demand, and in terms of the level of professional expectations.

Speaking of demand, as you know all to well, the public demand for DNA analysis is far outstripping the laboratory capacity to conduct that analysis. The judicial view of the admissibility of DNA has now basically been settled as a matter of law. Fifteen states now have statutes governing the admissibility of DNA test results. And forty-eight states have statutes that require that convicted felons submit blood samples to a database that will assist law enforcement in bringing criminals to justice. The result is that we are creating a substantial backlog — over a half million samples — that we believe will require a national response to add these samples to the database.

So it has been a decade of rapid change — in the science, in the law, and in the practice regarding DNA. The question that you will be addressing at the conference is where the future of DNA lies. I would like to suggest three central truths that will determine that future.

First, because of the power and popularity of DNA, the public demand for DNA analysis will grow exponentially. There is something very compelling about a technology that can identify individuals at probability levels approaching uniqueness. The idea that we can identify wrongdoers — and exclude innocent parties — has particularly powerful appeal in the area of criminal justice. The public and the elected officials who represent us will demand that we bring this certainty to our criminal justice processes. They will expect that DNA analysis be conducted in every possible instance — that the DNA database will expand rapidly to allow for more "cold hits" once that phase becomes part of our popular vocabulary. We need to anticipate the impacts of these expanded demands upon the routine practices of the police and criminal justice agencies. How should crime scene investigations be conducted in this new world? What should be the relationship between DNA analysis and other forensic analysis? How should prosecutors weigh these various types of evidence in determinations regarding charging and plea bargaining? How should judges weigh this scientific power in charging juries? And how should jurors be instructed to balance various types of evidence? It is no understatement to suggest that DNA will revolutionize our approach to determinations of guilt and innocence — and only a slight overstatement to say that we are not ready for this revolution.

The second core truth — another one that you know all too well — is that the public commitment to funding the infrastructure to manage this expanded demand has not kept pace with these raised expectations. We need only look at the issue of the backlog in offender samples to see the problems posed by funding decisions that have not kept pace with public demand. On a more subtle level, the organizational commitment within the criminal justice professions to retraining and equipping our police, prosecutors, public defenders and judiciary must be accelerated to maintain the highest professional standards.

The third core truth — and the one that gives us the greatest sense of optimism — is that the science of DNA itself is making rapid progress to bring the technology of the analysis itself into the realm of affordability. The development of new technologies such as micro chips and mass spectrometry will increase the speed of DNA analysis, increase its ability to uniquely identify a person, and decrease the cost of analysis. We can only hope that the progress in the technology of DNA will take place soon enough that it can help solve the mismatch between public demand and the ability of our country's DNA analysis infrastructure to meet that demand.

At the National Institute of Justice, we are committed to taking a leadership role in finding a balance between these three central truths. As you know, we have funded a number of scientific inquiries that are already showing great promise in the important effort to reduce the cost of DNA analysis, increase its reliability and bring the technology closer to the scene of the crime. In the President's budget under consideration by Congress this week, we have requested a $5 million appropriation as the first year of a five year program to accelerate that scientific development. We have also been working diligently to implement the Congressional laboratory improvement program. We hope that Congress will increase the level of funding for that program in the years to come. I am particularly proud that we have created a National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence — a commission on which many people at this conference have graciously agreed to serve — to take a hard look at the many implications of DNA for every area of criminal justice and law enforcement practice. I have every expectation that the report of this prestigious commission will provide a blueprint for the next century.

I am also pleased to report that NIJ has undertaken two other major initiatives that are indirectly related to the DNA issue. With the strong support Attorney General Reno, we have inaugurated our Investigative Sciences program that will build a stronger scientific basis for many of the techniques and technologies used for criminal investigations. The first product of this initiative was our publication on Death Investigation Guidelines, the result of extensive consultation and consensus building with over 140 practitioners and scientists that will set new professional expectations for this aspect of criminal investigation. Last week we launched the Technical Working Group on Eyewitness Testimony and we have begun similar work on bomb and arson investigations in partnership with our colleagues at the University of Central Florida.

In a second initiative, which we are calling, "Science and the Law," we are seeking to examine the legal rules of evidence and case law in partnership with the legal academic and practice communities. Our goal is to reduce to phenomenon of the battle of experts in the courtroom by establishing guidelines for the introduction of strong science, not junk science, into evidence.

As we move forward, I would like to encourage each of you to provide us with your ideas and criticisms. We view this effort as a true partnership — between NIJ and the many professions represented in this room. We see ourselves as your advocates — as colleagues in a historic effort to leverage the power of science to serve our country's efforts goal of developing more effective and more impartial responses to the challenge of crime.

I thank you for your many contributions to that effort and wish you a successful conference.

Date Created: November 28, 2007