Three Transformative Ideals to Build a Better Crime Lab

67 Pages Posted: 9 Oct 2018

See all articles by Nicole B. Casarez

Nicole B. Casarez

University of St. Thomas; University of Houston Law Center

Sandra Guerra Thompson

University of Houston Law Center

Date Written: September 17, 2018


This Article proposes that policy makers should consider establishing their jurisdiction’s crime laboratories as government corporations independent of law enforcement as a means of improving their quality and efficiency. Simply building new buildings or seeking accreditation will not solve the endemic problems that crime laboratories have faced. Rather, we propose that crime laboratories be restructured with a new organizational framework comparable to the Houston Forensic Science Center's (HFSC) status as a local government corporation (LGC), which has proven to be conducive to creating a new institutional culture.

From our experience with the HFSC, we also believe that crime laboratories are well-advised to embrace the three ideals that have helped transform the HFSC: transparency, efficiency, and quality. These ideals do not exist independently of each other, rather each ideal overlaps with and reinforces the others. By providing concrete examples of the three transformative ideals in operation, this Article will illustrate how even a struggling laboratory can become high-functioning in a few short years without large public expenditures. Most importantly, in our view this success can be replicated.

To determine the extent to which crime laboratories make documents pertaining to their internal operations public, we undertook an empirical study of crime laboratory transparency by researching the websites of local, state, and federal laboratories. The study tabulates the number of laboratories that provide online disclosure of critical documents, such as standard operating procedures, backlogs, and corrective action reports (also known as incident reports). Part I of the Article reports the findings of the study and provides a critical analysis of the results.

Part II describes the HFSC’s corporate governance structure. This section demonstrates how the hybrid model of a public agency organized as a corporation offers a distinct set of advantages consistent with democratic principles, while also incorporating the efficiencies of a private-sector corporation. This part of the paper also addresses the organizational advantages of making a forensic laboratory independent of a law enforcement agency. However, we discuss advantages as viewed from the perspective of a laboratory director, rather than revisiting concerns about motivational and cognitive bias.

Finally, Part III of the Article addresses the three transformative ideals — transparency, efficiency, and quality — that have guided the HFSC’s operations and have proved critical to its success. This section of the Article provides concrete examples to illustrate how the ideals can be put into action by laboratory administrators. This part of the paper demonstrates that, at least with regard to HFSC, the establishment of a crime laboratory as an independent LGC has generated benefits for law enforcement and crime survivors as well as defendants, the judiciary, and jail administrators. Indeed, by creating a transparent, high-functioning crime laboratory, the entire community wins.

Suggested Citation

Casarez, Nicole B. and Thompson, Sandra Guerra, Three Transformative Ideals to Build a Better Crime Lab (September 17, 2018). Georgia State University Law Review, Vol. 34, No. 4, 2018, U of Houston Law Center Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: or

Nicole B. Casarez

University of St. Thomas ( email )

3800 Montrose Blvd
Houston, TX 77006
United States

University of Houston Law Center ( email )

4604 Calhoun Road
Houston, TX 77204-6060
United States

Sandra Guerra Thompson (Contact Author)

University of Houston Law Center ( email )

4604 Calhoun Road
Houston, TX 77204-6060
United States

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