Innovative Program Addresses Need to More Accurately Apply Forensic Science in Justice System

Max Houck, Director of the Forensic Studies and Justice Program.

Max Houck, Director of the Forensic Studies and Justice Program.

(Oct. 9, 2017) – Many criminal investigations and trials hinge on evidence as small as a few skin cells, a microscopic fiber or a chemical trace. The smallest of evidence has been instrumental in overturning more than 2,000 wrongful convictions in the U.S. over the last 23 years. A new Forensics Studies and Justice Program at USFSP is providing students with the skills and critical thinking that are an integral part of nearly every criminal investigation and civil case today.

“There is no other program like this in the nation,” said Max Houck, Visiting Assistant Professor and Director of the Forensic Studies and Justice Program. “Rather than teaching the science behind forensics, we look at how forensic science is used and misused, and how to apply this information to the justice system that mitigates human bias and increases accuracy.”

Wrongfully accusing an innocent person and allowing a guilty party to go free and commit another crime are just some of the costs for misusing forensic science. To avoid such costs, core courses in the program stress forensic applications, critical thinking about evidence used in cases and scenarios to improve investigations, all with an emphasis on avoiding biases.

“The larger goal is educating those who will use and interpret forensic science information; investigators, law enforcement officials, attorneys and judges,” said Houck. “The program really provides an excellent foundation for law school or to continue law enforcement education.”

Houck comes to USFSP after a long career in forensic science that spans time as a physical scientist with the FBI and as director of the District of Colombia’s Consolidated Forensic Laboratories. He says he wanted to engage with the next generation in this emerging field and saw the region as a forensic science hub.

USFSP has relationships with major forensic centers in the Tampa Bay area that include the National Forensic Science Technology Center in Largo, Special Operations Command (SOCOM) at MacDill Air Force Base, Stetson Law School in Gulfport and police departments at the local, county and state levels.

“We train practitioners from law enforcement, defense and laboratories, and know there is great value in learning concepts and techniques early,” said National Forensic Science Technology Center’s CEO Kevin Lothridge. “We are always supportive of new and innovative approaches at all levels of forensic education.”

Moving forward, Houck hopes to provide a minor as well as bring on another Criminology professor to create more flexibility and options for students.

“This is a very strategic major that provides a foot in the door for a lot of opportunities. Investigations are conducted daily in every sector of the U.S. such as finance, health or art, so it is entirely up to the student what career path they want to pursue,” said Houck.