OSAC's mission is not only to facilitate the development of high-quality standards but also to encourage widespread adoption throughout the forensic science community. There are numerous challenges to the successful implementation of standards on the OSAC Registry and stakeholders share many of the same questions about the best way to proceed. The following Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) are provided to help address these questions and concerns.
The 2009 NAS Report identified the lack of consistent and uniformly high- quality standards across forensic science disciplines and across national, regional and local jurisdictions. OSAC was created in 2014 by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and NIST specifically to address this issue. The process of creating high-quality, consensus-based standards that demonstrate technical merit is arduous and requires collaboration on the part of a widely diverse universe of stakeholders. OSAC has succeeded in generating a Registry that lists high-quality standards which can address the criticisms in the NAS Report if implemented into practice by forensic science practitioners and recognized by the criminal justice system.
The benefits to forensic scientists and the criminal justice system differ slightly according to the stakeholder group being impacted by standards implementation. The primary shared benefit across all stakeholder groups is the increase in consistency and quality in the production of laboratory outputs which impacts the entire criminal justice system. With uniformly higher quality comes improved confidence in the accuracy, reliability, and reproducibility of test results. With improved test results comes a reduction in potential errors. Reducing risks in forensic science test results can improve not only the likelihood of successfully identifying the true perpetrator but also the likelihood of exonerating the innocent. Among other noteworthy benefits from increasing quality include the reduction in the number of cases generating equivocal results that often require repetitive testing. Clearer testing outcomes lead to higher productivity and increased efficiency resulting in the higher rates of return on investments in laboratory operations and more consistency in report writing and expert testimony.
To summarize, implementation of standards means higher quality, consistency, accuracy, reliability, reproducibility, interpretable results, productivity, confidence, satisfaction of clients including investigators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and juries, and a reduction in risk, erroneous or inconclusive outcomes, uncertainty and costs associated with required mitigation of errors. When courts are able to begin taking judicial notice of expert testimony that the analysis, interpretation and reporting of results conforms with nationally recognized standards found on the OSAC Registry, challenges to the admissibility of the testimony may diminish and the impact of testimony on judges and juries may be enhanced.
As of February 2023, the OSAC Registry has over 130 standards, however there are more than 50 standards published by SDOs awaiting OSAC review and more than 120 OSAC-drafted standards at SDOs awaiting review. To access a list of the standards on the OSAC Registry, the standards sent by OSAC to SDOs awaiting review, and the standards already approved by SDOs that are currently in the Registry Approval Process, go to the OSAC Registry Implementation web page. The range of disciplines that will be impacted directly by standards approved for the OSAC Registry is expanding rapidly. Finally, it should be noted that the OSAC Registry Implementation Plan focused first on forensic science service providers but will also soon focus on prosecutors, defense attorneys and the courts. Forensic science service providers are encouraged to initiate the standards implementation process in their operations proactively while it is under their control rather than waiting to find themselves being reactive to address questions in court. Expert witnesses will increasingly begin to encounter questions about whether they conform with standards listed on the OSAC Registry.
Not everyone in the criminal justice system is aware of OSAC or the standards listed on the OSAC Registry. Chapter 4 of the OSAC Registry Implementation Plan specifically addresses educating the legal community. The OSAC Legal Task Group includes prominent members from the prosecution, defense and innocence projects, and judges. They are encouraging OSAC to educate members of the court and eagerly await the introduction of the standards on the OSAC Registry into evidence in criminal cases. Judge Christopher Plourd, who chaired the original OSAC Legal Resource Committee (now the Legal Task Group) issued findings in a criminal case in California which mentions a seized drug standard on the OSAC Registry. Case law referencing standards on the OSAC Registry will predictably follow in the future. OSAC has the responsibility to educate members of the court about the nature and significance of the standards on the OSAC Registry.
Accredited forensic science laboratories that implement some or all the applicable standards on the OSAC Registry in their operations may in the future be assessed for conformity to those standards by accreditation bodies. If the standards are identified in the agency’s quality manuals, assessors will evaluate conformity during laboratory audits. Chapter 6 of the OSAC Registry Implementation Plan addresses educating the accreditation bodies and encouraging them to add the standards on the OSAC Registry to their supplemental standards. The OSAC Quality Task Group membership currently includes representatives of the U.S. forensic science accreditation bodies who serve as excellent references to provide guidance on questions about accreditation and the impact that implementation has on the audit process.
No. It is not necessary for forensic science service providers to implement all standards listed on the OSAC Registry. There are several ways to add standards on the OSAC Registry to a laboratory's quality documents. One way is to include a simple statement in the Quality Manual that states that the laboratory has implemented all applicable standards on the OSAC Registry. Alternatively, laboratories are free to list individual standards or applicable portions of standards on the OSAC Registry in their quality documents. Sample language is available online in a detailed “How-to Guide” for OSAC Registry implementation prepared by the OSAC Quality Task Group to help laboratories with implementation of standards on the OSAC Registry. These guidelines include instructions on how to manage implementation of applicable portions of standards as well as entire standards.
OSAC is currently maintaining an internal spreadsheet to track standards implementation by forensic science service providers. OSAC also conducts an annual survey to better understand how U.S. crime laboratories and other forensic science service providers are using the standards on the Registry. The first survey was completed at the end of August 2021, and the second survey was completed at the end of August 2022. If you would like to have your laboratory added as an implementer of standards listed on the OSAC Registry, please email mark.stolorow [at] nist.gov for more information. Laboratories that have implemented some or all of the applicable standards on the OSAC Registry may fill out the OSAC Registry Implementation Declaration Form available on the OSAC Registry Implementation web page and forward it to mark.stolorow [at] nist.gov. Stakeholders in the forensic science and criminal justice communities as well as Congress have expressed interest in following the progress of standards implementation by forensic science service providers.
Laboratories that have implemented some or all of the applicable standards on the OSAC Registry may fill out the OSAC Registry Implementation Declaration Form available on the OSAC Registry Implementation web page and forward it to mark.stolorow [at] nist.gov. Forensic science service providers who provide their standards implementation status to the OSAC Program Office will be eligible to receive an OSAC Registry Implementation Certificate. The certificate is suitable for framing and displaying onsite in the forensic science facility.
Many OSAC members are forensic scientists employed by law enforcement agencies. They have vast experience in communicating within the hierarchy of senior law enforcement officials in their own agencies and can recommend the most effective ways of communicating with them. The FSSB Outreach & Communications Task Group and the OSAC Program Office are also examining select professional law enforcement organizations to target for improved outreach and communication to increase awareness and support of OSAC and the value proposition of implementing standards on the OSAC Registry. A variety of outreach tools are available on the OSAC website. Additional outreach tools are also under consideration for social media, online communication, emails, and printed materials.
Yes. As mentioned in FAQ 3, there are over 130 standards posted on the OSAC Registry, more than 50 standards published by SDOs awaiting OSAC review and more than 120 OSAC drafted standards at SDOs awaiting review. The range of disciplines that will be impacted directly by standards approved for the Registry is expanding rapidly. To help find the standards relevant to each discipline, the OSAC Program Office has prepared a list of Registry standards compiled by discipline as well as a list of recently approved SDO standards working their way through the OSAC approval process, also categorized by discipline. In addition, the list includes a section on OSAC drafted standards that have been forwarded to SDOs for consideration. The list is updated regularly and is located on the OSAC website on the OSAC Registry Implementation web page.
A detailed “How-to Guide” prepared by the OSAC Quality Task Group is available to forensic science service providers to help them with the process of implementing standards on the OSAC Registry. This guidance document, OSAC Standards Implementation: A How-to Guide, is located on the OSAC website. The detailed guidance includes help with developing a logical stepwise plan. For example, the section leaders for each discipline will need to familiarize themselves with the standards currently on the Registry as well as those under consideration that might be added to the Registry over the next several months. The key is to focus on those standards which are applicable to the section leader’s specific discipline. There are a lot of standards on the Registry overall but a much smaller number that are specific to each discipline. As described in FAQ 10, to help section leaders find the standards relevant to their discipline, the OSAC Program Office prepared a list of Registry standards compiled by discipline as well as a list of recently approved SDO standards working their way through the OSAC approval process, also separated by discipline. In addition, the list includes a section on OSAC candidate standards that have been forwarded to SDOs for consideration. Section leaders will then be able to conduct a gap analysis to evaluate if they are ready to implement the standards. Finally, OSAC maintains an internal Implementer Tracker listing forensic science service providers that have already implemented some or all the standards on the OSAC Registry. The OSAC Program Office can facilitate discussions between your lab and other forensic science service providers listed on the tracker to provide specific standards implementation guidance based on that laboratory’s experience.
Chapter 2 of the OSAC Registry Implementation Plan is titled “OSAC Member External Engagement.” There are more than 450 members of OSAC and several hundred additional OSAC affiliate members. This chapter focuses on strategies and action plans to leverage the current base of expertise, experience and support of OSAC that can be tapped to help advance the implementation of standards. Current OSAC and SDO Consensus Body members are the perfect ambassadors for championing the very standards they helped develop. These scientists are forensic experts and thought leaders who have unique insight into the intricacies of the development of the standards. They may have either started or are well on their way to implementing standards in their own forensic science laboratories. Development of peer-to-peer networks taps existing expertise and enables forensic scientists to steward their disciplines. One strategy under consideration includes OSAC members networking with laboratories interested in starting the implementation process. These OSAC members will serve as invaluable resources for laboratories looking to adopt the new standards. OSAC members will also be encouraged to develop workshops, panels and presentations for national and regional meetings. Another strategy is to implement individual mentorships with OSAC members reaching out to other relevant stakeholder groups as a natural extension of standards development and implementation.
Detailed instructions on how to access the standards are provided on the OSAC website Access to Standards section.
SDOs have expenses they must cover to remain solvent and those expenses are normally covered, in part, through the sale of standards to non-members. OSAC has arrangements with some SDOs with copyrights to many forensic science standards to make these standards available at no cost to forensic science service providers, law enforcement and government practitioners in the criminal justice system. For information about access to standards on the OSAC Registry at no cost, see the Access to Standards section on the OSAC website.
Detailed instructions on how to access the standards are provided on the OSAC website with links for each of the OSAC subcommittees.
The many laboratories that have reported their implementation of standards have one thing in common - all of them have at least one champion on board advocating for standards implementation. Managing the process effectively is achievable with good leadership and it is a requirement for success. The first step is to identify the person or persons who will be given both the authority and the responsibility to administer the standards implementation process. Most often, we see the QA manager as that individual. Next, the organization needs to identify a group who will be responsible for executing the program plan. Typically, this group consists of the QA manager and the technical leaders in each of the laboratory’s disciplines. The technical leaders must be responsible for meeting with the scientists in their respective sections and executing a gap analysis for only those standards which apply to their section (See FAQs 3, 10, and 11 for details about organizing gap analyses). Gap analyses will require adequate time and resources to complete effectively. Depending on the size of the section and the number of standards applicable to the section, the technical leader must allocate a realistic timetable to complete the gap analysis and report back to the task group and the QA manager. It has been said that the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. There is wisdom in dividing up the tasks into smaller workable segments and providing adequate time and resources to succeed. For additional help from others who have expertise and have succeeded in achieving standards implementation, you may also refer to members of the Association of Forensic Quality Assurance Managers (AFQAM) and the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD). The OSAC Program Office can also provide contacts for you, specific to your needs.
Not Applicable: Checking the “Not Applicable” box is most commonly used for disciplines for which your facility simply does not provide analysis on site. “Not Applicable” might also be used when you provide analysis for that discipline on site but the standard in question cannot be applied because you don’t have the instrumentation on site. In other words, “Not Applicable” means you could not implement that standard in your facility even if you wanted to (a non-elective option.)
Will Not Implement: Checking the “Will Not Implement” box is commonly used for disciplines for which your facility does have the relevant analytical section, but you have decided not to implement a particular standard within that discipline. Some laboratories say that they use standards with a higher bar from an SDO or a SWG and have decided not to implement the standard on the OSAC Registry. Some laboratories say that they do not agree with the language in the standard and have elected not to implement it until it is amended or updated. There can be a host of other justifications laboratories can use to explain this choice. In other words, “Will Not Implement” means you could implement that standard if you wanted to, but you choose not to do so for whatever reason (an elective option). That is your right to decide.
There are probably still some gray areas between the two choices of “Not Applicable” and “Will Not Implement.” It is impossible to get all laboratories to agree on the distinctions between the two choices. Ultimately, your laboratory needs to define that distinction in a clear way for itself and follow that definition consistently throughout your own laboratory. There are no implementation police who can knock on your door to challenge your decision. The OSAC Program Office will accept your own self-adoption policies and honor your decisions. We want individual laboratories to own those decisions. It is your quality system.