NYCLAC Report Standardization Project
Comments from the New York State Crime Laboratory Advisory Committee (NYCLAC)
March 10, 2014
RE: NYS Report Standardization Project
There are 19 accredited publically funded crime laboratories in the State, now that all four laboratories that comprise the New York State Police system are considered one laboratory. These laboratories are run by state, county and municipal authorities and serve a diverse host of agencies. There is also a significant difference in both size and case volume of the laboratories with the smallest laboratory in the state staffed by three analysts and the largest by 350. While both the variety and diversity of these conditions does a good job of mimicking the conditions nationwide, it has also posed significant, but not insurmountable report standardization challenges which have taken time to overcome.
Over the course of this project there have been many productive discussions about what report standardization actually means and how NYCLAC and the state’s Technical Working Groups (TWGs) can improve the reports that are issued in the state of New York. In our view, the laboratory report serves as an essential tool for the criminal justice system to understand the value of the evidence that was examined in our laboratories. However, we do not feel that standardization means that all reports will look the same, but that core aspects of the content of the reports should be standardized throughout the state within each discipline or category of testing.
We also do not believe that a laboratory report will replace the need for discovery. Forensic laboratory reports are not meant to duplicate the case file, but to summarize the work performed in a manner that can be understood by the members of the criminal justice community, yet that still remain scientifically accurate. We feel including additional wording and complexity can lead to misunderstanding and misinterpretation among our users. Duplication of the case file within the report also poses a significant risk in that it will take considerably longer to incorporate this information into the report and to ensure that it is properly reviewed, both technically and administratively. The end result is that each case will take longer to produce, further straining already overworked crime laboratories for no appreciable gain.
With this framework, the TWGs were charged with three overarching tasks:
- Identify standard components that must be present in a report for a given discipline or category of testing.
- Develop standardized reporting language, where feasible, and identify times when qualifiers and/or disclaimers are necessary.
- Develop standardized definitions that will either be included in the report or archived on a website that will be referenced in the report.
The following attachments are the work product of the TWGs with input from NYCLAC members. Since New York is the first state to undertake report standardization, this is not the end of the project, but just the beginning of a continuum. These will be living documents that are reviewed and modified as problems are identified and revised as new testing protocols are implemented and incorporated. Historical records will be archived on a website hosted by the Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS).
It is our intention to institute report standardization through voluntary compliance of the participating laboratories throughout the state. We estimate that it will take approximately 6-9 months for laboratories to make the necessary changes to their manuals and report templates to account for these changes. To ensure that these guidelines do not preclude accurate reporting, if a laboratory feels that they have a situation which was not accounted for, they will be able to deviate from the reporting guidelines. Deviations and the reasons for them will be regularly reviewed by the TWGs and NYCLAC. Deviations should be rare events. Should the deviations become a frequent occurrence, the TWGs and NYCLAC will evaluate if the rules require change.
Training will also be necessary for members of the Criminal Justice Community. DCJS has offered to facilitate web based training to allow all end users to understand the changes that will be taking place in reports throughout the state. Through this mechanism it should be possible to reach a large number of users in a fairly short period of time.
As previously stated, while this project took significant effort on the part of the TWGS and everyone involved, it is not considered an end point but rather a starting point that we anticipate will continue to evolve. The laboratories believe it is a step forward towards uniformity and standardization of laboratory reports which will better serve to improve the practice of forensic science in New York State.