The Future of Forensic Laboratories

What will the forensic laboratory look like and how will it function 15 to 20 years from now? A recent survey conducted by SmithGroupJJR, entitled Forensic Laboratory 2030, highlighted how changes in technology will affect the way forensic laboratories will develop according to scientific and legal mandates.

SmithGroupJJR, over a two-year period, surveyed crime lab directors and managers across the country through online surveys and personal interviews. The results included:

The Organization of the Laboratory

One of the major changes likely to take place in in the laboratory is its basic organization. SmithGroupJJR came to this conclusion after many survey participants reported that, due to the high cost of maintaining multiple services, they were being driven to focus instead on core sections. As such, high-growth lab areas were those focused on specific areas, such as DNA, digital forensics, and drug analysis.

The survey found that, because DNA instrumentation has experienced rapid advancement in technology, the future laboratory will have shorter turnaround times and broader applications for analysis. In the last 15 years, digital forensics has also taken off, due to the development of new digital devices, including cell phones, smartphones, tablets, and digital cameras. The survey found that this trend will continue.

The survey also found that low-growth areas will include trace evidence, latent prints, and questioned documents, as they are being consolidated into larger, regionalized laboratories that can take on larger caseloads and therefore produce a better return on investment.

Improving Forensic Laboratories

Many of the participants of the survey recommended the standardization of forensic laboratories through new laws and the creation of a national regulatory agency that would be responsible for the implementation. Although there is no new legislation regarding this topic, many of the survey participants revealed that they have adopted NAS goals.

Future Challenges in Forensic Science

Challenges within the scientific environment reported by survey participants were broad, ranging from laboratory funding and the recruitment of staff to operational challenges and innovations in technology. However, the SmithGroupJJR found that the underlying message was the need to adapt to unforeseen changes. Specifically, many survey respondents were concerned about meeting the challenges of accommodating new technologies into existing spaces. Because specialized equipment and forensic procedures are constantly evolving, participants reported using more analytical instrumentation in everything from drug chemistry to toxicology. These technological advancements will ultimately affect the design of forensic lab facilities in the future, with lab personnel likely relying on automation, robotics, and instrumentation in coming years.