Review of the Office of Justice Programs’ Forensic Science Improvement Grant Program
Evaluation and Inspections Report I-2006-002
Office of the Inspector General
The Office of Justice Programs (OJP) is responsible for developing programs to increase the nation’s capacity to prevent and control crime, improve the criminal and juvenile justice systems, increase knowledge about crime and related issues, and assist victims of crime. 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 grants.4 In fiscal year (FY) 2004, OJP and its bureaus awarded 4,333 grants totaling more than $3.7 billion to state and local agencies to assist with criminal justice activities.5 To ensure the legal and fiscal responsibility of the Department’s grant programs, OJP’s Office of the General Counsel, Office of the Comptroller, and the Office of Budget and Management Services provide legal and fiscal advice to all five of OJP’s bureaus.
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is one of OJP’s five bureaus. NIJ is the Department of Justice’s (Department) primary research, development, and evaluation agency. NIJ also awards grants to educational institutions, public agencies, non-profit and faith-based organizations, individuals, and certain for-profit organizations to conduct independent research on crime control and justice issues. Some of NIJ’s major programs include social science research and evaluation, technology development, forensic laboratory capacity development, technology assistance for state and local public safety agencies, and dissemination of information. In FY 2004, NIJ awarded 506 grants totaling approximately $300 million.
NIJ Grant Process
NIJ solicits grant applications by releasing grant announcements on its web site or publishing them in the Federal Register. Grant announcements contain the program and eligibility description, application deadline, instructions for applying, and list of required documents. Applicants are required to submit their applications through an automated, online system called the Grants Management System, operated by OJP. Applicants must provide certain information with grant 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. In addition to these general documents, applicants must submit any information required by the particular grant for which they are applying.
NIJ’s grant 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. In its publication, NIJ Guidelines: How to Submit Applications (NIJ Guidelines), NIJ provides general instructions and a checklist for completing grant applications in response to grant announcements.
NIJ may also request that applicants provide additional information to ensure that the application is accurate and that all certifications are factually correct. 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 an application, OJP’s Office of the Comptroller and other OJP offices review the application. The Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs’ signature is required before grant funds are paid.
The Paul Coverdell Forensic Science Improvement Grant Program (Coverdell Grant Program), administered by NIJ, provides funds to state and local governments to improve the timeliness and quality of forensic science and medical examiner services.6 The Coverdell Grant Program is intended to assist state and local governments in eliminating backlogs in analyzing forensic evidence, including controlled substances, firearms examinations, forensic pathology, latent prints, questioned documents, toxicology, and trace evidence, and to improve the quality and reliability of forensic laboratory results.
Studies and investigations funded by the Department, state and local governments, and non-profit groups have identified backlogs in processing forensic evidence at state and local crime laboratories and have uncovered incidents of negligence and misconduct by laboratory employees and contractors in several states. For example, a Bureau of Justice Statistics study of the 50 largest crime laboratories found that at the end of 2002, these laboratories had a backlog of approximately 270,000 requests for forensic services, which represented a 132-percent increase from the beginning of 2002.7 In addition to these backlogs, several investigations have identified instances of negligence and misconduct in the processing of criminal evidence, such as DNA evidence, in at least four different forensic crime laboratories. In another example, a 2005 investigation of the Houston Police Department Crime Laboratory found that two laboratory analysts engaged in multiple incidents of scientific fraud for which they were not properly disciplined.8
Prior to October 30, 2004, the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 required Coverdell Grant applicants to certify that: (1) they have developed a consolidated state plan for forensic science laboratories and a description of how the grant will be used to carry out that plan; (2) any forensic science laboratory system, medical examiner’s office, or coroner’s office that will receive some of the grant money uses generally accepted laboratory practices and procedures established by accrediting organizations; and (3) the amount of the grant used to construct a new facility will not exceed the specified limitations.
FY 2005 Coverdell Grant Announcement and Application Review
On October 30, 2004, Coverdell Grants became subject to a new certification requirement. The Justice for All Act of 2004 amended the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 to require a fourth certification from all state or local government applicants for Coverdell Grants. In addition to the first three certifications described above, applicants must now provide:
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 the 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.9
During the Attorney General’s confirmation hearing on January 6, 2005, Senate Judiciary Committee members asked two questions about the new Justice for All Act of 2004 certification requirement. The Attorney General was asked if he would “rigorously enforce” the new certification requirement. The Attorney General responded that if confirmed, under his direction the Department would “rigorously enforce the certification provision added by the Justice for All Act.”
The Attorney General was then asked how the Department would require timely certification for states applying for FY 2005 Coverdell Grant funds. The Attorney General responded as follows:
If confirmed, I will direct the NIJ to ensure that all applicants for [Coverdell] grant funds comply with this certification requirement. States that fail to provide this certification as part of the grant application process will be denied funding.10
In January 2005 representatives of the Innocence Project expressed concerns regarding the external investigation certification and Coverdell Grant applicants’ ability to certify.11 Based on these concerns, we asked NIJ how it planned to enforce the new certification requirement. After NIJ discussed the matter with OJP’s Office of the General Counsel, NIJ provided us with a plan to enforce the certification requirement on April 13, 2005. NIJ planned to notify applicants of the requirement, direct applicants to submit a certification as an appendix to their applications, and deny funding to any applicant that failed to provide the certification. NIJ notified applicants of the certification requirement in the April 21, 2005, Coverdell Grant Program Announcement, which established an application due date of May 24, 2005.
On May 12, 2005, the OIG sent a memorandum to the NIJ Director expressing concerns about the announcement and the external investigation certification. On May 27, 2005, NIJ met with the OIG to discuss our concerns that the announcement may not have provided sufficient guidance to applicants on the required external investigation certification or requested sufficient information from applicants for NIJ to evaluate the certifications.
On June 30, 2005, NIJ notified all the FY 2005 Coverdell applicants via e-mail that the certifications they initially submitted would not be considered and that they were required to re-certify. The June 30, 2005, e-mail contained a re-certification package which included examples of external investigation certifications and a re-certification form prepared by NIJ. The re-certification form quoted the Justice for All Act of 2004 certification language and required the name of the applicant agency and the signature of a certifying official from the applicant agency (see Appendix I). NIJ instructed all applicants to submit the signed re-certification forms online, through the Grants Management System, by July 20, 2005. NIJ began reviewing the applications and re-certification forms on July 21, 2005, and approved or disapproved the grant applications, depending on the adequacy and completeness of the applications. NIJ forwarded the approved grant applications to OJP with a recommendation that they be considered for funding.