The Agenda

Radley Balko Makes the Case for Private Crime Labs

Radley Balko reports on abuses at government-owned crime labs, and how independently-owned crime labs might offer an attractive alternative. He draws on a 2007 paper by Fairleigh Dickinson University economist Roger Koppl:


Under Koppl’s plan, a city or state would create a position of “evidence handler.” The evidence handler’s job would be to distribute the testable evidence in a case to the appropriate crime lab. Under a fully privatized system, the evidence handler would distribute it to one of a rotating series of private labs. Under a partially-privatized system, there would still be a state lab, but under both systems, in every third case or so, the evidence would be sumbitted to a second or third lab for verification. The original lab would not know when it was being checked by other labs.

This system, which Koppl calls “rivalrous redundancy,” flips the incentive problem upside down. For the individual crime lab worker, the incentive is no longer to please prosecutors or police, but to do the most thorough, sound, objective analysis possible. For the private labs, the incentive is to catch the state labs — or another private lab — making a mistake. When there’s conflict over test results, a third or fourth lab could come into the mix.

Private labs also have an incentive to protect themselves from liability. It’s nearly impossible to sue the government. Individual crime lab workers employed by state or local governments are protected by qualified immunity, making it difficult to sue them as well. Private labs don’t have such protections, so they’re more likely not only to be careful, but to preserve evidence in the case of litigation.

The idea strikes me as an appealing way to keep the criminal justice system honest, and it might actually generate savings if it helps prevent wrongful convictions that could prove expensive in the future:

The system Koppl proposes would likely be more expensive than the system most cities and states use now, though if they eliminated the state lab altogether, it’s possible the difference would be small. But Koppl estimates that his reforms could be implemented and maintained for years for the cost of a few wrongful convictions — which this system would go a long way towards preventing.


The Latest