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The Surprising Way CSI Changed Real-Life Investigations Forever

In recent years, there's been a theory floating around that crime dramas on primetime TV like "CSI: Vegas," "Law & Order: SVU," and the like have created a ripple effect in the real world. It's called "The CSI Effect," and it may have some very serious consequences for society as a whole. The thinking is that jurors these days are less likely to convict a guilty party unless there is forensic evidence (fingerprints, DNA, ballistics data, etc.) to prove the defendant guilty.

If that were to be true, it would be extremely problematic. Forensic evidence practices and techniques, in reality, are very different from the way they are dramatized on TV. According to National University, connecting an individual to a crime scene with a fingerprint match could take years, not days or even hours like it's portrayed on television. The CSI Effect has become such a concern that the National Institute of Justice recently did an investigation of its own into how true the phenomenon is. And some of the results are surprising.

Jurors expect forensic evidence now more than ever before

In the end, the NIJ study "did not reveal a so-called 'CSI effect'." But just because they didn't think there was enough evidence to prove it doesn't mean they didn't notice some disturbing trends. Because of shows like CSI, "a higher percentage of respondents expected to see DNA evidence in the more serious violent offenses," especially in cases of rape (73%). That's a frightening statistic, especially given the hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits in the US, most of which may never get processed (via End the Backlog).

For other types of crimes, though, jurors' expectations aren't so impossibly high. Eyewitness and/or victim testimony was enough to convict for breaking-and-entering, theft, and most other criminal cases, even without forensic evidence. But there's no doubt that using science to convict criminals plays an important part in how our criminal justice system works today. And it's a little naïve to claim that shows like CSI haven't played a part in that.