chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
November 01, 2017 Feature

How Arizona Developed and Used a Needs Assessment to Guide Judicial Forensic Science Training

By Judge Samuel A. Thumma and Jennifer Wildeman

As technology plays an increasingly significant role in our society, it has become commonplace in the courtroom. New technological practices and discoveries bring forensic science topics such as DNA, latent print examinations, and digital evidence to the forefront of our court system. Not surprisingly, relevant training on these types of topics is essential for judges to sufficiently evaluate forensic evidence.

In 2016, Arizona created a Forensics Workgroup to investigate, plan, and deliver training to Arizona judicial officers on forensic science topics as part of the Arizona Supreme Court’s Strategic Agenda. Building on the award-winning Arizona Forensic Science Academy, which began in 2011 and provides training for criminal prosecutors and defense attorneys, the Workgroup developed a needs assessment. The Workgroup then provided the needs assessment to all judicial officers in Arizona so that the bench could identify the most urgent forensic education needs. The responses identified the most urgent and relevant needs for forensics training. Using the results, the Workgroup planned and implemented an educational program on various criminal justice matters, held in December 2016 in conjunction with the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety Conference. The Workgroup also identified opportunities to enhance existing judicial training programs (including new judge orientation training) with forensic science content, as well as creating an online forensic science reference repository available on demand.

This article provides an overview of the Workgroup, the needs assessment prepared and implemented by the Workgroup, and the responses received from Arizona’s judicial officers. This article then describes programming at the December 2016 Arizona Judicial Forensic Science Conference, provides a summary of forensic science training added to the judicial training program, and offers an outline of the forensic science webpage created as a result of the efforts of the Workgroup. The hope is this article provides, at a high level, a toolkit for judicial forensic education in other jurisdictions, with the encouragement that it can be done, in real time, and with great results.

The Arizona Forensics Workgroup

Arizona judicial educators organized the Workgroup, composed of judges, scientists, and attorneys who worked together to identify ways that forensic science education could be delivered to Arizona judges. Working with the Arizona Supreme Court Administrative Office of the Courts Education Services Division, this Workgroup identified three educational approaches: (1) a multiday conference focused specifically on forensic science topics, (2) the addition of forensic science sessions to the required training program for all new Arizona judges, and (3) the creation of a forensic science resource webpage that judges can refer to on an as-needed basis. This approach serves to (1) provide an in-person opportunity for judges who routinely consider matters involving forensic science, (2) increase judges’ knowledge of relevant issues even before they sit on the bench, and (3) deliver relevant information in real time and in a single location.

At the initial planning meeting in March 2016, the Workgroup discussed the scope of the effort, which built on the successful efforts of the Arizona Forensic Science Academy. The focus of the Arizona Forensic Science Academy is exclusively criminal law, while the Workgroup noted the need to focus educational efforts on both criminal and civil matters (including family law, probate, and other types of noncriminal matters). The Workgroup agreed that some science is applicable to all types of cases but that the science and legal issues may differ depending on the case type.

The first task the Workgroup undertook was preparing a needs assessment to be circulated to Arizona judicial officers to help identify the most urgent and relevant needs. Jody Wolf, chair of the Arizona Forensic Science Academy, agreed to share the needs assessment that group used in 2009 to develop that program. Initially, the Workgroup agreed to include questions about civil matters in the needs assessment, with the primary initial focus on criminal justice matters. In the end, however, the needs assessment focused exclusively on criminal justice matters. The thought was that, once the program was established and the first educational program was completed, the focus would then change to include civil matters. At that time, a needs assessment for civil matters would be developed and implemented to plan and conduct an educational program focusing on various civil matters.

Following the March 2016 initial planning meeting, Workgroup members modified the Arizona Forensic Science Academy’s needs assessment, changing the form of the inquiries and adding additional topics. In mid-May 2016, the Workgroup circulated the needs assessment to all Arizona judicial officers along with the following electronic message from Workgroup leader Ron Reinstein, Arizona Supreme Court judicial consultant and retired Arizona Superior Court judge:

To all Judges and Justices:
The Arizona Supreme Court is considering a judicial training program in December, with others to follow, regarding forensic science disciplines. Forensic science plays an increasingly significant role in many areas of the law, and in recent years, there have been important changes relating to the various disciplines and the manner in which they are utilized in the court system.
The Court has put together a 19-person planning committee made up of judges, attorneys, and forensic scientists, and to help determine what areas should be covered as part of the training program, we have prepared a short needs assessment survey and request your help in filling it out. The survey can be accessed online at:
If possible, we would appreciate your feedback by May 27, 2016, and are hoping for a very high response rate. The survey should only take you about five minutes to complete.

In preparing the needs assessment, the Workgroup was not able to identify any publicly available needs assessment used with judicial officers addressing forensic science training. Because no published needs assessment for judicial forensic science training was available, the assessment used in Arizona is set forth in its entirety for use in other jurisdictions.

The Responses

More than 200 Arizona judicial officers responded to this needs assessment, providing invaluable insight to direct the Workgroup in preparing the Arizona Judicial Forensic Science Conference and other training. Of the respondents, approximately 120 were general jurisdiction judges (called superior court judges in Arizona), more than 70 were limited jurisdiction judges (including municipal judges and justices of the peace, some of whom do not have law degrees), and about a dozen appellate judges or justices. The results were instructive in the perception of needs for the different types of judicial officers.

For the general jurisdiction judges, there was strong interest in obtaining information related to child physical and sexual abuse, as well as electronic evidence from a variety of perspectives, including data recovery from cell phones and handheld devices. For the limited jurisdiction judges, there was strong interest in obtaining information related to controlled substances and driving while intoxicated–related forensics, such as breath and blood tests, and marijuana, as well as information related to electronic evidence. Appellate judges expressed interest in similar topics, with responses more diffuse and reflecting an interest in a broader array of topics.

Differences in responses to some of the questions are instructive. For general jurisdiction judges, in response to question 2 (“Which of the following criminal law-related topics would you be interested in and/or find useful in your work?”), more than half of the respondents indicated child physical and sexual abuse cases, traumatic brain injury, and sexual assault. For limited jurisdiction judges, nearly 90 percent responded controlled substances, with the next highest categories being blunt force trauma and traumatic brain injury, selected by approximately a third of respondents. Responses by appellate judges to this question approximated those of general jurisdiction judges in most respects.

For all three categories of judicial officers, the most frequently selected response to question 3 (computer/electronic topics) was information about data recovery from cell phones and handheld devices. Given the nature of the cases they are asked to resolve, computer forensics—child pornography was selected by approximately 60 percent of the general jurisdiction and appellate respondents, but only approximately 10 percent of limited jurisdiction judges. Likely for similar reasons, for question 4 (asking about forensic evidence collection topics), more than 75 percent of limited jurisdiction judges responded, “accident reconstruction,” while less than half of general jurisdiction and appellate respondents identified accident reconstruction.

The Arizona Judicial Forensic Science Conference

The Workgroup used the needs assessment responses to plan the Arizona Judicial Forensic Science Conference, held in Tempe in December 2016, and to prepare the agenda. Both mornings of the two-day program involved plenary sessions, while the afternoons involved two tracks with breakout sessions. The agenda, speakers, and schedule for the conference is available at (last visited June 29, 2017).

More than one-quarter of judicial officers in the Arizona judicial system attended the inaugural Arizona Judicial Forensic Science Conference. The Workgroup solicited post-training evaluations, which were overwhelmingly positive. Comments such as “good legal information . . . useful and practical” and “interesting and informative” indicate participants found the topics to be relevant and useful for understanding evidence and testimony in the courtroom. In addition to positive formal evaluation comments, Workgroup members received informal feedback suggesting that judges widely support future forensic science training opportunities.

Building on the needs assessment and the success of the conference, the Workgroup focused on including forensic science sessions during required training programs for new judges. These sessions provide an overview of the forensic science challenges judges can expect to see in their courtrooms. In addition to in-class instruction, education efforts partner with local forensic scientists to provide judges with an on-site tour of a local crime laboratory. This interactive tour gives judicial officers the opportunity to see firsthand what a crime lab looks like, learn about the capabilities of the lab itself, and speak directly with the scientists who work there.

During the crime lab tour, judges hear presentations from several different units of the lab, including crime scene response, forensic biology/DNA, firearms examination, controlled substances, toxicology, and latent print examinations. The tour offers a unique opportunity for experiential learning. Judges not only view demonstrations, but also actually use some of the laboratory equipment themselves. The judges enjoy having the chance to see the lab, to have a “hands-on” experience, and to speak with scientists. After the first crime lab tour, one judge commented, “I am so grateful for this tour. I think it is a valuable addition to new judge orientation.” Overall, the tour has proven to be a successful way to provide another opportunity for our judges to learn about forensic science.

Finally, the Workgroup created a forensic science reference webpage. The group wanted judges to have access to a single repository of forensic science information including articles, websites, legal opinions, and reports. Given that the field of forensic science is rapidly changing, the group urged the creation of a dynamic webpage that can be updated on a continual basis, instead of a static bench book updated only periodically. The webpage was published in May 2017 and is managed by the Arizona Supreme Court Administrative Office of the Courts Education Services Division, which works closely with judges and scientists to maintain current information and update the webpage as needed. Although the webpage is not viewable by the general public, an example of the types of resources listed in the repository is available for review.


Significant challenges to providing effective judicial forensic science education exist everywhere. The multifaceted approach adopted by the Arizona Forensics Workgroup provides a foundation for future training opportunities. The needs assessment is an essential tool to identify the most urgent forensic education needs. Using a variety of training methods ensures that judicial officers throughout Arizona have access to information on these important topics in a timely manner. This combination of in-person and online training provides flexibility to adapt as scientific understanding changes over time. The hope is that this needs assessment, resulting successful conference, and related education programs will help facilitate judicial officers’ knowledge of, and confidence in addressing, forensic science in the courtroom, not only in Arizona but also in other jurisdictions that undertake judicial education on forensic evidence.

The views expressed are solely those of the authors and do not represent those of the courts for which they serve.

    The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.