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The Problem with the Department of Justice’s New Language for Forensic Practitioners

By Innocence Staff

Simon A. Cole, criminology professor at the University of California Irvine, recently published a blog post for the Union of Concerned Scientists that critiques the eight new Uniform Language for Testimony and Reporting documents (ULTRs) that the Department of Justice (DOJ) introduced this past July.

According to Cole, an ULTR is “a document meant to ensure that all forensic practitioners from the same discipline in DOJ forensic science laboratories use the same language in reporting the results of their analyses to police, lawyers, judges, and juries.”

Cole questions whether these documents actually “meet the highest scientific and ethical standards” as the Deputy Attorney General said when he introduced them.

Cole’s main concern is with the “categorical reporting framework.” He explains:

All nine of the ULTRs use what is sometimes described as a “categorical” reporting framework. This framework sorts all reports into a small number of categories. For example, the categorical framework for firearms evidence is:

1. Source identification (i.e., identified)

2. Source exclusion (i.e., excluded)

3. Inconclusive

Categorical reporting has long been widely criticized because the artificial boundaries between the categories render the system prone to perverse cliff effects. A better way would be what might be called “continuous” reporting, in which the weight of the evidence is reported as it is, rather than by reference to its place in a relatively crude three-category framework.

Another issue with categorical reporting, writes Cole, is that it implies certainty. “Science doesn’t deal in certainties,” Cole says, “and these ULTRs violate basic probabilistic reasoning.”

Since the termination of the National Commission on Forensic Science in April 2017, the DOJ has delegated its forensic reform effort to the Forensic Science Working Group—the current publisher of the ULTRs. Cole explains why this is, in his words, “discouraging”:

Given that the ULTRs are the first official documents produced by the Forensic Science Working Group as part of its “plans to advance forensic science,” these documents are a discouraging sign for a future in which forensic reform is driven by the DOJ. Since the ULTRs were supposed to “serve as a model for demonstrating” the DOJ’s “commitment to strengthening forensic science, now and in the future,” their flaws don’t portend well.

To raise concerns about or to provide feedback on the new ULTRs, Cole believes that “any scientist can help by letting the DOJ know that their statements are not scientifically credible and that the opinions of individual scientists and scientific institutions should be taken seriously by the nation’s most important purveyor of justice.”

Read the full blog post here.

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