Review of the Office of Justice Programsí Paul Coverdell Forensic Science Improvement Grants Program

Evaluation and Inspections Report I-2008-001
January 2008
Office of the Inspector General


Background

The Office of Justice Programs (OJP) is responsible for developing programs that increase the nation’s capacity to prevent and control crime, improve criminal and juvenile justice systems, increase knowledge about crime, and assist crime victims. Led by an Assistant Attorney General, OJP is divided into five bureaus that provide training, collect and disseminate crime statistics, support technology development and research, and administer Department of Justice (Department) grants.3 OJP’s Office of the General Counsel provides legal advice to the five bureaus. In fiscal year (FY) 2006, OJP and its bureaus awarded 4,875 grants totaling $2.5 billion to state and local agencies to assist with criminal justice activities.

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ), one of OJP’s bureaus, is the Department’s primary research, development, and evaluation agency. NIJ awards grants to educational institutions, public agencies, nonprofit and faith-based organizations, individuals, and certain for-profit organizations to conduct independent research on crime control and justice issues. In addition, NIJ programs include forensic laboratory capacity development, technology development, technology assistance for state and local public safety agencies, social science research and evaluation, and dissemination of information. In FY 2006, NIJ awarded 490 grants totaling over $185 million.

NIJ Grant Process

NIJ solicits grant applications by posting grant program announcements on its website. Program announcements contain the grant program and eligibility description, the application deadline, instructions for applying, and a list of required documents. Applicants must provide certain information in their applications, including a detailed program narrative and abstract describing the purpose, goals, and objectives of the project to be funded; a budget detail worksheet and narrative; and several standard forms. NIJ’s program announcements may also require that applicants make certain assurances in their applications by certifying that they have taken or will take certain actions and will comply with all applicable federal statutes and regulations during the period covered by the grant. If an applicant provides all requested information and qualifies, the NIJ grant program manager forwards the application to the NIJ Director for approval. If the NIJ Director approves or recommends (depending on the funding authorization) the application, OJP awards the grant.

Paul Coverdell Forensic Science Improvement Grants Program

The Paul Coverdell Forensic Science Improvement Grants Program (Coverdell Program), administered by OJP through NIJ’s Investigative and Forensic Science Division in the Office of Science and Technology, provides funds to state and local governments to (1) improve the quality and timeliness of forensic science and medical examiner services and (2) eliminate backlogs in the analysis of forensic evidence, including controlled substances, firearms examination, forensic pathology, latent prints, questioned documents, toxicology, and trace evidence.4

To request a Coverdell Program grant, an applicant must submit, in addition to all other required documents, a certification that

a government entity exists and an appropriate process is in place to conduct independent external investigations into allegations of serious negligence or misconduct substantially affecting the integrity of forensic results committed by employees or contractors of any forensic laboratory system, medical examiner’s office, coroner’s office, law enforcement storage facility, or medical facility in the State that will receive a portion of the grant amount.5 [See Appendix I.]

This external investigation certification became a requirement on October 30, 2004, as a result of the Justice for All Act of 2004, which amended the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968.6

Because negligence and misconduct in forensic laboratories can undermine the justice system, the establishment of this external investigation certification helps to provide a necessary safeguard.7 Forensic laboratory negligence and misconduct and false testimony by forensic laboratory personnel have led to wrongful convictions in several states. For example, in 2006, Marlon Pendleton was exonerated after serving 10 years for rape and robbery. The faulty analysis of a crime laboratory analyst contributed to his conviction. In 2007, Curtis Edward McCarty was exonerated after serving 21 years for murder. McCarty was convicted and sentenced to death based on the false testimony of a forensic analyst, whose misconduct contributed to at least two other convictions later overturned by DNA evidence.

The 2005 Office of the Inspector General Report

In 2005, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) evaluated NIJ’s implementation of the external investigation certification requirement.8 The OIG report concluded that NIJ did not enforce the external investigation certification requirement during the application process or exercise effective oversight of this aspect of the FY 2005 Coverdell Program. Specifically, the OIG found that NIJ did not provide necessary guidance to applicants and did not require applicants to submit the information necessary to permit OJP to evaluate the certifications.

The OIG report recommended that OJP (1) provide guidance to applicants regarding the external investigation certification, (2) require that each applicant provide the name of the government entity that could conduct independent external investigations of serious negligence or misconduct related to forensic laboratories, and (3) consider requiring each applicant to submit a letter from that government entity acknowledging that it had the authority and process to conduct independent external investigations.

OJP agreed with the first recommendation to provide guidance to applicants on independent external processes and did so in the FY 2006 Coverdell Program Announcement. However, OJP initially resisted implementing the second recommendation to require each applicant to provide the name of the government entity that could conduct independent external investigations. Eventually, after much discussion with the OIG on this recommendation, OJP agreed to implement this recommendation in FY 2007. However, OJP has declined to implement Recommendation 3, requiring a letter from the government entity identified in the grant application as prepared to conduct independent external investigations.



Footnotes
  1. The five OJP bureaus are the National Institute of Justice, the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and the Office for Victims of Crime.

  2. “States” include the 50 states, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. For certain purposes, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands are treated as one state.

  3. Title I of the Omnibus Safe Streets and Crime Control Act of 1968, Part BB, codified at 42 U.S.C. § 3797k(4).

  4. The Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, as amended by the Justice for All Act of 2004 (Pub. L. No. 108-405), codified at 42 U.S.C. § 3797k(4).

  5. In this report, the terms “forensic laboratories” and “forensic laboratory” include medical examiners’ offices, coroners’ offices, law enforcement storage facilities, and medical facilities.

  6. U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General, Review of the Office of Justice Programs’ Forensic Science Improvement Grant Program, Evaluation and Inspections Report I-2006-002 (December 2005).



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