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On April 1, 2019, New York State passed large-scale criminal justice reform legislation, including discovery reform.

The discovery law governs the exchange of relevant information before a trial begins, enabling both the prosecution and the defense to build their cases based on all available evidence.

What’s changed?

It’s now required that prosecutors disclose their evidence to the defense earlier in the case. In addition, prosecutors must automatically hand over relevant information. Prior to the reform, state law required discovery only if the defense filed a written request. It also didn’t require prosecutors to release information until the trial began – a disadvantage toward the defense.

According to the Center for Court Innovation, the adaptation of discovery reform adds New York to a list of 46 other states that have adopted comparable “open discovery” laws.

The new discovery statue went into effect on January 1, 2020 and has already been subject to debate.

Proponents of the changes argue that, by imposing discovery timelines, a decrease in processing time will result in shorter jail stays and fewer convictions.

Opponents argue that the new law puts witnesses at risk – as witness information becomes available to the defense much sooner.

For forensic labs, the reform comes with an extra burden to meet tighter timeframes, usually without additional resources to help offices comply.

Knowing that many of our customers will face a similar challenge, we’ve spoken with experts in the field to collect the best advice they have to handle these changes:

Digitize

The largest obstacle for our customers has been responding to discovery requests while operating in a paper-based environment. Not only is searching for files burdensome for staff, but it increases the likelihood of error. Discovery requests can arrive in bulk, without warning, and cause a heavy workload on an already spread-thin staff.  Having your documents available electronically will speed up the process and make the requests more manageable for everyone.

A2LA Workplace Training recently published- When, Why, and How to Switch to a Digital QMS. This is a great place to start when you’re ready to switch from paper to digital.

Automate

One of the fastest ways to improve your system is to automate as many tasks as possible using a software-based quality management system. At Qualtrax, we refer to process automation as workflows.

In a workflow, the key steps of a process are mapped out and locked into place. Each element of that process is assigned to the responsible party by your system administrator, so as soon as one person completes his or her portion of the task, it is automatically routed to the next person in the process.

So it’s monday morning and your lab is hit with multiple discovery requests. Having an established workflow gives you the certainty that each aspect of the request is being handled by the appropriate staff member and you can monitor progress along the way.

Because each organization is unique, our workflow tool is configurable and allows you complete control of how your processes are organized. This will allow you to create consistency across your team, increase lab efficiency and reduce headaches!

We know how annoying it can be to keep track of who has each document, who still needs to sign it, and figure out what’s getting hung up. Process automation has been the answer for many of our customers – one the most popular workflows being our corrective action workflow.

Ensure Excellent Record Keeping

There are 21 types of evidence covered by the new discovery reform. There are also new provisions that expand the list of discovery materials to include. This means that keeping impeccable records is critical – because you’re going to need to provide them quickly and accurately!

One of our customers recommended standardizing your record keeping system to avoid errors and save time. According to her, variables like chronological order, nomenclature and file structure could be different depending on which part of the lab you work in. Inconsistencies like these lead to slower processing time when collaboration is needed to fulfill discovery requests.

That’s why we’ve tried to simplify document control as much as possible in the Qualtrax software. We know that you need the ability to maintain up-to-date data, manage compliance with role-based actions, and easily find documents you need, all in a central location.

Be Ready to Report

Ultimately, what will matter most is the ability to gather and report the discovery information requested. The quality and depth of data you’re able to report will depend on your ability to make your documents easy to access (digitization), automate your processes through workflows, and keep excellent records.

Though the reform we’ve discussed here only applies to the state of New York, we predict that more open discovery laws will become commonplace in criminal justice reform.

If you’re curious about how Qualtrax can help prepare your lab to handle these challenges, contact us for a free trial and a conversation with one of our accreditation experts. We are happy to share ways our current customers use our software to create more efficiency and success in their labs!

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