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Debate: DNA database of criminals

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Should governments and police units keep a DNA database of criminals?

Background and context

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is the main constituent of the chromosomes of all organisms, and is found in the form of a double helix within the nucleus of every somatic cell. Consequently, a small sample of human body cells can be decoded to reveal a pattern that is shared only by a genetically identical twin.
The DNA of each individual does not change during his lifetime. This technique is commonly used in police investigations and is termed ‘DNA fingerprinting’. At present the police can remove samples of DNA from individuals suspected of involvement in a specified crime, commonly by the removal of cells from the mouth using a cheek swab. The DNA of the suspect can then be compared to any genetic material found at the scene of the crime.The creation of a database of DNA would allow police to use DNA in order to search for a suspect, rather than merely to provide evidence once a suspect has been apprehended. The British police have operated a database of the DNA of convicted criminals since 1995.The proposition in this debate may choose at their discretion the section of the population whose DNA would be kept on the database. Considering that the most striking arguments on both sides of the debate involve civil liberties, it is suggested that a bold proposition be developed. The model might include the sampling of DNA from every member of the population. New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani has proposed that a DNA sample be taken from every newborn. However, it would be possible to require that the database contains only the DNA fingerprint of persons arrested or even only the profiles of convicted criminals.[1]
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Improving justice: Would a DNA database help improve the accuracy of the criminal justice system?

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Yes

  • DNA fingerprinting techniques have considerable advantages over conventional means of forensic crime detection. Conventional fingerprints attach only to hard surfaces, can be smeared, or avoided by the use of gloves. Even a clear print requires a significant degree of interpretation by investigating officers. The standard technique of comparing fourteen points between the print taken at the crime scene and the print of the accused has been subject to severe criticism. The novel ‘polymerase chain reaction’ (PCR) amplification technique facilitates an accurate DNA profile from very small amounts of genetic data. The fingerprint can be constructed notwithstanding contamination from oil, water or acid in the crime scene environment.The innocent and the accused should appreciate a novel fingerprinting technique that is both objective and accurate.[2]
  • A DNA database would not be intended to replace conventional criminal investigation: The database ought to identify the potential suspects, each of whom can then be investigated by more conventional means.There is no possibility of escaping the provision of technical evidence before a court. Doctors, ballistics experts, forensic scientists are already a common feature of the large criminal trial. The jury system is actually a bastion against conviction on account of complicated scientific facts. The British jury is instructed to acquit a defendant where they find reasonable doubt. If the genetic data and associated evidence is insufficiently conclusive, or presented without sufficient clarity, the jury is obliged to find the defendant innocent.O.J. Simpson was acquitted by an American jury of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman in spite of compelling DNA evidence linking him to the scene of the crime.[3]
  • The increased use of DNA evidence will minimize the risk of future wrongful convictions. An FBI study indicates that since 1989 DNA evidence has excluded the primary candidate in 25% of sexual assault cases. Moreover, forensically valuable DNA can be found on evidence that has existed for decades, and thus assist in reversing previous miscarriages of justice.[4]
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No

  • Although DNA detection might have advantages over fingerprint dusting, the test is nevertheless fallible. Environmental factors at the crime scene such as heat, sunlight, or bacteria can corrupt any genetic data. Any DNA evidence must be stored in sterile and temperature controlled conditions. Criminals have been suspected of contaminating samples by swapping saliva.There is room for human error or fraud in comparing samples taken from suspects with those removed from a crime scene. The accuracy of any genetic profile is dependent upon the number of genes examined. Where less than four or five genes can be investigated, the PCR technique serves only to exaggerate any defects or omissions in the sample. In 1995 an 18 month investigation was launched into allegations that the FBI Crime Lab was ‘drylabbing’ or faking results of DNA comparisons.Even a complete DNA profile cannot indicate the length of time a suspect was present at a crime scene or the date in question. The mere creation of a database cannot be the panacea for crime detection.[5]
  • There is a serious risk that genetic evidence will be used to the exclusion of material that might prove the innocence of the suspect. It is likely that more crimes will be prosecuted on account of largely circumstantial evidence. Moreover, there is the possibility that not only the police, but also the jury, will be blinded by science. It seems unlikely that juries will be able to comprehend, or more importantly, to question, the genetic information that is yielded by the database. The irony is that forensic evidence has been instrumental in establishing the miscarriages of British justice in the 1970s, but might now serve to create miscarriages of its own.[6]
  • The database is immaterial to the acquittal or exclusion of non-offenders: Where a primary suspect has been identified, a DNA profile ought to be created and compared to the crime scene data. Likewise, where suspicions persist concerning the guilt or innocence of a convicted individual, a sample of DNA can be taken. The database has predominant application in ‘non-suspect’ cases, and not the circumstances where the suspect or felon is already identified.[7]
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Civil liberties: Is DNA fingerprinting consistent with the need to uphold civil liberties?

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Yes

  • The use of a DNA fingerprint can scarcely be regarded as an affront to civil liberties. The procedure for taking a sample of DNA is less invasive than that required for the removal of blood.The police already possess a vast volume of information relating to the citizenry. The National Crime Information Center Computer in the United States contains files relating to thirty two million Americans and receives approximately two million queries each day.The availability of a DNA fingerprint to the police should be seen in the context of the personal information that is already held by outside agencies. Insurance brokers commonly require an extensive medical history of their clients. Mortgage lenders usually demand a full credit record of each applicant. Employers subject their employees to random urine tests for drug and alcohol consumption. If we are prepared to place our personal information in the private sector, why can we not trust it to the public authority of the police ? The DNA will only be utilised in the detection of crime. In short, the innocent citizen should have nothing to fear.[8]
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No

  • The invasiveness of the database resides in the information being maintained on file, rather than in the procedure for obtaining the genetic data. The decision to pass personal information to mortgage or insurance agencies is governed by individual consent. The provision of DNA would have to be mandatory, for otherwise those liable to commit crime would simply refuse to provide a sample.When the citizen releases information to outside agencies he receives a service in return. In being compelled to give a sample of DNA the innocent citizen would receive the scant benefit of being eliminated from a police investigation.Moreover, medical records are already subject to a significant degree of statutory protection from investigation. The use of genetic tests by insurance companies remains highly controversial. It should be noted that DNA identifies not only the person in question, but also approximately 4,000 different genetic conditions and predispositions to disease. There is considerable potential for abuse of information that is so private, the person giving the sample will probably not know its contents. Finally, there is a subtle yet significant difference in the attitude of government towards the citizen that is conveyed by the creation of a database. Every citizen, some from the moment of their birth, would be treated as a potential criminal.[9]
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Budgetary burdens: Would the creation of a DNA database be a major budgetary burden?

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Yes

  • The creation of a DNA database would not require a disproportionate investment of time or public resources. The requisite computer and laboratory technology is already available. The United States has developed the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).The expense of sampling the entire population of most countries would be substantial. It is unlikely to be offset by any subsequent saving in police resources. Yet the issue is properly the price that we should put on justice. The electoral rhetoric of ‘law and order’ suggests that the public puts a very high premium on protection from crime.[10]
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No

  • The initial and continuing expense of a DNA database would be a gross misapplication of finite public resources: Public confidence in the criminal justice system will neither be improved by requiring them to give time and tissue to the police, nor by the creation of a novel bureaucracy dedicated to administering the database.The funds would be better directed towards increased recruitment of police officers and their more regular deployment on foot patrol.[11]
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Importance: Would DNA testing have an important impact in solving crimes?

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Yes

  • There has been an increase in the kinds of crimes being committed that would require DNA testing: Although overall levels of crime in England and Wales have decreased over the previous decade, the number of violent crimes against the person has markedly increased. These are the offences which raise most grave public concern and which are unlikely to leave conventional fingerprints. The National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence estimates that thirty per cent of crime scenes contain the blood, semen, or saliva of the perpetrator. DNA detection will be best equipped to identify the guilty. A full database ought to allow the use of DNA as an investigative tool where no suspect has yet been identified.[12]
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No

  • DNA testing is commonly irrelevant: The most serious violent crimes, notably the offenses of rape and murder, are most commonly committed by individuals known to the victim. When the suspects for the commission of a crime are obvious, DNA detection is superfluous. Moreover, it is invidious to propagate the belief in the public that crimes can be solved, or criminals deterred, by computer wizardry. Unless the DNA is used to identify a genetic cause for aggression, violent crimes will continue to be committed.[13]
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Pro/con resources

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Yes

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No

See also

External links and resources

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