Are Crime Labs Incentivized to Produce False Results?
Did you know that over 14 states’ criminal justice systems rely on forensic analysis influenced by incentives? States reward crime labs with a bonus for each conviction they generate.1 For example, in North Carolina, if a law enforcement agency’s lab is testing for the presence of alcohol, the state will pay out a $600 bounty to them “upon conviction.”1 And because incentives can skew honest errors due to their influence on perception, many cases of suspected drunk driving can end up with a false guilty verdict.
The Creation of an Observation Bias
Offering incentives for forensic testing doesn’t necessarily mean that scientists are being encouraged to lie when it comes to results. However, it does mean that when there is a reward for a “guilty” result, a lab technician isn’t necessarily inclined to double-check tests. Though false conviction rates are low, even a 3% error could put 33,000 innocent individuals behind bars annually, according to Syracuse University Professor Roger Koppl and Fairleigh Dickinson University Assistant Professor Meghan Sacks, who performed the research together. The study was published in the academic journal, Criminal Justice Ethics, earlier this year.
As Koppl and Sacks put it: “The subjectivity of forensic science matters in part because of the twofold monopoly in forensic science. First, the evidence is typically examined by one crime lab only. In this sense, the crime lab receiving a bit of evidence has a monopoly on examination of that evidence.”
Combine that with a little monetary incentive and it’s no surprise that flippant and sometimes outright scandalous decisions are made in the crime lab:
- At least 82 DUI blood tests with falsely high readings happened in a single crime lab in Colorado Springs, Colorado (2009).2
- In Washington, D.C., the city used faulty breathalyzer machines for more than a decade (revealed in 2010).2
These are headline-making scandals, but if you think they’re isolated incidents – think again.
Restoring the Balance
Many would agree that the processes of lab testing and incentivizing need major reform. As we speak, the powers that be are researching structural reforms that could help restore the balance of justice to crime labs nationwide. Potential changes being explored include privatizing crime labs and providing a voucher so that poor defendants could hire a lawyer over a public prosecutor. Unfortunately, until some sort of profound change happens, many innocent people will continue to be put behind bars and out of pocket.
Nobody should have to deal with a false prosecution just because a crime lab worker doesn’t do a thorough job. Case after case, Mark Thiessen has proven that he can and does win, even when a blood test indicates intoxication. Let the Thiessen Law Firm fight for your justice – and your rights. Contact us today.
1. Koppl, R. and Sacks, M. (2013). The Criminal Justice System Creates Incentives for False Convictions. Criminal Justice Ethics, 32 (2), 126-162. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0731129X.2013.817070#.UlwWL1AWIbM
2. Balko, R. (2013) Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. New York, NY: PublicAffairs.