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Forensic science as “risky business”: identifying key risk factors in the forensic process from crime scene to court

Roberta Julian (School of Social Sciences, Tasmanian Institute of Law Enforcement Studies (TILES), University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia)
Sally F. Kelty (School of Social Sciences, Tasmanian Institute of Law Enforcement Studies (TILES), University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia)

Journal of Criminological Research, Policy and Practice

ISSN: 2056-3841

Article publication date: 7 December 2015

Abstract

Purpose

The purpose of this paper is to identify and discuss key risk factors in the use of forensic science in the criminal justice system by adopting a holistic and systemic approach that examines the collection and use of forensic evidence from crime scene to court.

Design/methodology/approach

The research on which the paper is based was a mixed-method five-year study of the effectiveness of forensic science in the criminal justice system in Australia using qualitative and quantitative methods. The paper draws on the in-depth analysis of qualitative data from 11 case studies of investigations of serious crime to identify key risk factors in the use of forensic science from crime scene to court.

Findings

Six key risk factors in the forensic process from crime scene to court are identified: low level of forensic awareness among first responders; crime scene examiners (CSEs) as technicians rather than professionals; inefficient and/or ineffective laboratory processes; limited forensic literacy among key actors in the criminal justice system; poor communication between key actors in the criminal justice system; and, financial resources not directed at the front end of the forensic process. Overall the findings demonstrate that forensic science is not well embedded in the criminal justice system.

Practical implications

The paper suggests that the risks inherent in the current practice of forensic science in the criminal justice system can be reduced dramatically through: forensic awareness training among first responders; the professionalisation of CSEs; continued improvements in efficiency and effectiveness at the laboratory with a focus on timeliness and quality; greater forensic literacy among actors in the criminal justice system; appropriate avenues of communication between agencies, practitioners and policymakers in the criminal justice system; and increased allocation of resources to the front end of the forensic process.

Originality/value

By adopting a holistic, systemic approach to the analysis of forensic science in the criminal justice system, and identifying inherent risks in the system, this paper contributes to the emerging body of research on the social processes that impact on the effectiveness of forensic science.

Keywords

Acknowledgements

The authors gratefully acknowledge the Australian Research Council for their support in funding the research on “The Effectiveness of Forensic Science in the Criminal Justice System” (LP0882797) through their Linkage scheme. The authors also gratefully acknowledge the support of the Industry Partners in this research, Victoria Police, the Australian Federal Police Forensic and Data Centres, and the National Institute of Forensic Science.

Citation

Julian, R. and Kelty, S.F. (2015), "Forensic science as “risky business”: identifying key risk factors in the forensic process from crime scene to court", Journal of Criminological Research, Policy and Practice, Vol. 1 No. 4, pp. 195-206. https://doi.org/10.1108/JCRPP-09-2015-0044

Publisher

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Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2015, Emerald Group Publishing Limited