The federal government has launched a wide-ranging review of the RCMP's long-troubled DNA labs and other forensic services, opening the door to possible private-sector delivery.
The Public Safety Department is seeking advice - including a look at how things are done in other countries - to help determine the best way forward in Canada.
The RCMP's Forensic Science and Identification Services do biology casework and toxicology tests, examine trace evidence, identify fingerprints, and analyze firearms and ballistics samples.
The government says these services - popularized by television shows such as the various Crime Scene Investigation series - have become more important to zeroing in on criminals as well as exonerating innocent people.
Public Safety recently issued a tender calling for a study to determine which models are "both feasible and sustainable in the Canadian context."
The federal outline is the first step in a process that could radically change the way vital crime-solving services are provided to police, Crown lawyers and others. The RCMP laboratories serve much of the country, though Ontario and Quebec have their own forensic labs.
The government signalled its desire for a new approach to the RCMP's services in its most recent budget "to help law enforcement more efficiently tackle crime."
It aims to reduce waiting times for processing samples, ensure sound financial management and boost research and development in the forensic sciences.
NDP public safety critic Don Davies objects to privatization, saying the Conservatives should simply provide more money for existing public-run facilities. "These guys talk the big talk about being tough on crime, but they don't put the resources into the critical spots that would actually make a difference."
The RCMP has made some changes during the last decade, notably merging its forensic branch with information and identification services four years ago.
However, Canada's spending watchdog found in May 2007 the RCMP's forensic laboratory service did not meet its own turnaround targets for completing requests.
Auditor-General Sheila Fraser said that although the service could process urgent requests in less than 15 days, they accounted for only one per cent of all demands. For the remaining 99 per cent, categorized as routine, the laboratory service was generally unable to meet the 30-day target set for them.
And although the labs had a national quality management system in place, Fraser said in practice there were "significant weaknesses" in how the laboratory service defines, records, monitors and resolves quality issues.
It is unclear whether wholesale privatization is necessarily in the best interest of the administration of justice, but acknowledgment of a private-sector option is "more than welcome," says Jack Laird, a forensic biologist and senior associate at an Ontario company that does DNA analysis.
In a recent commentary he argues for a national model that harnesses the strengths of both the public and private laboratory systems.
"Resources in the public sector are strained and there isn't a laboratory director anywhere that would not welcome additional funding to improve their services," he wrote. "But even if this funding was in place, public laboratories can't be all things to all people."
The federal review will look at funding, current use of the services, cost-effectiveness and "alternative scenarios" for delivering forensic work.
The company that carries out the study will be expected to interview forensic service professionals in both the public and private sectors, as well as police and public service officials involved with the programs.
It will run mathematical models to test the various possibilities using hypothetical caseloads - such as a mixture of DNA, fingerprint and ballistics samples - to see which one performs best.
A draft report is due by next September.
Follow us on Twitter: