Criminal DNA Databases Not Just For Felons Anymore Criminology Essay

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When most people think of DNA profiling they think of the positive aspects. DNA evidence has been used to free innocent people from prison and get bad guys off the street. Giving a sample for a DNA database is often involuntary whether you have been convicted of a felony or not. The problem is not that DNA profiles are recorded but that there is little regulation on how long the DNA samples themselves are kept. A DNA profile is just a pattern of bands but a DNA sample contains all your genetic information and if handled properly can be kept for many years (Jost). Programs set into place in the name of public safety without enough thought to privacy concerns set the stage for this information to be misused. DNA databases originally set up for harmless DNA identification purposes might later be used by health insurers, the government and/or employers to screen and discriminate against you based on your genetic code. In addition to privacy questions, these DNA database expansion efforts also drain money away from traditional police work that have a more direct affect on public safety. I believe the expansion of criminal DNA databases is a threat to personal privacy and the benefits to public safety do not out weigh the social and financial costs.

When DNA databases first started in the 1990s, they were limited exclusively to sex offenders, murders, and others violent criminals. This has begun to change. October 30, 2004 the Justice for All Act was enacted changing what could be added to the Federal Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). This allowed states to upload profiles for convicted criminals, people charged with crimes, and any legally obtained samples including arrestees who had been charged. Previously only convicted felons could be added to the CODIS database. Many states have expanded the categories required to submit to DNA testing to include non-violent criminals and arrestees. In 2003, 18 states broadened the categories of individuals required to submit DNA samples to include non-violent criminals. Seven states are considering including arrestees. California law for example requires DNA samples from anyone convicted of a felony offense, a sex offense including misdemeanors, and anyone arrested for a felony. Juveniles are included in all these categories. In California, DNA voluntarily given is kept in the DNA databases for at least two years so any volunteers are considered suspects in future cases. If arrestees are found innocent of the crime their DNA is still stored in the database unless they go to court to get it back. This doesn't make sense. If a person is innocent of a crime, they should have the right to have their DNA samples disposed of automatically and not be treated like a criminal (Simoncelli and Steinhardt).

One disturbing practice is DNA dragnets or DNA sweeps. In these types of operations, people fitting a general description or living in a certain area of a crime are targeted for DNA profiling. Nineteen cases, five in California alone have used this method. This type of police action is a violation of personal rights. You can either volunteer your DNA like a criminal or if you refuse you are scrutinized like you are guilty. The police, if they feel like it, can collect your DNA from a napkin paper cup or anything that has traces of your DNA without your consent. They can also collect samples in the same way from any family member of a suspect. This family member could be a son, daughter, mother or father. They have the right to collect these items without the persons having knowledge of it or giving their consent. This is a violation of a person's fourth amendment right, the right to unlawful search and seizures. Ominously, proposals in New York and Michigan have flirted with the idea of sampling all newborns (Simoncelli and Steinhardt). These types of laws make it clear the term criminal DNA database is not accurate. Many of these people are completely innocent yet are being treated like criminals.

One group of people you would think would be the last to be forced to bank DNA samples would our men and women serving in the military. They have however been required to submit to DNA sampling since 1992. The Department of Defense collects these samples and stores them so that they can be used for identification purposes. If an unfortunate event happens and the person cannot be visually identified they can use the DNA that is on file to identify them. I think this should be the soldier's choice to submit a sample. Two Marines in January of 1995 were threatened with court-martial if they refused to follow a direct order of an officer to submit samples of their DNA to the Department of Defense repository. Joseph Vlacovsky, and John Mayfield were in the military and they were willing to die for their country, but did not want their fourth amendment right to be violated. They stuck to their beliefs and refuse to submit DNA samples. They were treated no better than common criminals. After a long drawn out legal battle, the judge dropped the charges, because there were no regulations on non-compliance with this program. Both received honorable discharges and kept their DNA private (Nelkin and Andrews). There have been a few cases in the past that have proven that the government has done things to soldiers without their consent or knowledge, so what's to stop them from using these DNA samples for other purposes.

This doesn't mean no good comes from this technology. What comes to most peoples minds about DNA testing is freeing wrongly convicted prisoners and catching violent offenders. For example because of laws requiring convicted felons to under go DNA profiling, Shermaine Johnson is on death row for the murder and rape of a 22-year-old girl. He was in prison for another rape and abduction and submitted a sample for the criminal database and was linked to the killing. But this type of example doesn't mean it is alright to expand these databases to include innocent people too. Philip Bereano, a professor of technology and public policy at Washington Seattle, said "Of course there would be benefits for the criminal justice system. There would be benefits if we let the police knock down doors at random in search of criminal activity. I'm sure they would find some, but the Fourth amendment wouldn't permit it (Jost)."

DNA samples taken for databases have the potential to be misused and regulation is inadequate. Most states have no provisions for the destruction of the DNA samples they collect (Rothstein and Talbott; Simoncelli and Steinhardt). Currently the only state to require the destruction of the DNA samples after analysis is complete is Wisconsin. This has yet to be done for any samples. Nebraska keeps them forever and Arizona a minimum of thirty-five years (Rothstein and Talbott). Keeping these samples makes it possible for these databases to be used for other purposes besides identification in the future. This has been described as the phenomenon of database creep. This country's databases have a history of being used for different functions. For example social security numbers were originally to be used only for the national retirement program. Citizens were assured they would not be used for anything else. Social security numbers are now numerical IDs for everyone that we have to put on things from bank accounts to taxes. A less benign database creep was the use of census records to target Japanese Americans for detainment camps during World War II. This type of creep is already beginning to happen to DNA databases. As I described these criminal DNA databases now include arrestees, those found innocent and even the military. Twenty-eight states allow DNA to be used for things unrelated to crime. In thirteen states laws are worded to include "other humanitarian purposes". Alabama directly says DNA can be used for medical research. The way they are being used for crime fighting is also expanding. In Louisiana, a murder investigation used information to predict race of the suspect. Familial Searching to look for partial matches of relatives has been used at least 20 times in the United Kingdom and in California (Simoncelli and Steinhardt).

Creeping of the purpose of DNA databases could have negative consequences. DNA samples contain all your genetic information and therefore could be used to discriminate against you by health insurance company, government and/or employers. Discrimination based on genes has already occurred. Danny was found to have a gene that predisposed him to heart disease and was prescribed medication to prevent it. When his father changed insurance provider, they refused to cover him based on his genetic makeup. The Council on Responsible Genetics, a bioethics advocacy group, claims this is one of 200 cases of genetic discrimination (Jost).

While DNA evidence can be very accurate it is not fool proof and the statistics currently used to estimate the probability of a random match may not be accurate. The Federal Bureau of Investigations (F.B.I) claims the probability of a random match is 1 in 1.1 million. This number is based on data from only about 300 people and is likely not accurate (Bobelian). A recent letter to the top research journal Science called for a more rigorous analysis of the data available. It was composed and signed by forty one respected biological scientists, social scientists and mathematicians from across the country. This letter calls for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.) to release information in the U.S. National Data and Index System DNA database. Laws exist that allow for academic scholars to use the information for research and quality control purposes if all personal information is removed. The F.B.I has yet to do this (Krane et al.). These statistics are also likely to be inaccurate when DNA is old or degraded and a match is made on just a few loci. Standard DNA profiles are based on 13 loci but cold hit sweeps of evidence against DNA databases often used much fewer. For example, samples in the John Puckett case were matched to deteriorated DNA samples using just 5.5 loci. He was identified in cold-hit scan of 338,000 offenders. Statistics allowed by court were a 1 in 1.1 million chance of a random hit. Other estimates for a 5.5 foci match based on more recent studies estimated the odds at 1 in 3. This was not allowed to be presented as evidence and he was convicted (Bobelian; Simoncelli and Steinhardt). If large databases are going to be used additional statistical analysis must be done.

Beyond the statistical debate, these tests are done by humans and we make mistakes. Human errors can occur in three stages of DNA testing; sample handling, analysis, and reporting. In January 2003 Houston Police department crime lab shut down for mishandling and misinterpreting DNA results involving 1300 cases with 370 identified as needing re-testing. Other labs in Fort Worth, Oklahoma City, Baltimore, Phoenix, West Virginia, Montana and Washington are under investigation as well (Simoncelli and Steinhardt; Nelkin and Andrews). Rapid expansion of these databases will increase the likelihood of these types of errors.

Putting aside misgivings about fourth amendment rights, the expansion of DNA databases to include innocent people and non-violent criminals uses a great amount of resources (both manpower and dollars) better spent elsewhere. The majority of crime is non-violent property crime with no DNA evidence. DNA database expansion accomplishes nothing in these cases. Police are not solving more crimes after DNA databases became available (Tracy and Morgan). The cost to include non-violent felons is not trivial. The cost to test additional people just in California is estimated at $159 million. This process also takes manpower. Many states have large back logs of samples because of addition of so many people into the DNA databases. Because of this potential hits on violent crime are not followed up on. For example In Virginia, 75% of hits from their database weren't even acted on in 2003. (Simoncelli and Steinhardt)

Making DNA database larger does not necessarily translate into a safer crime free world. Most crime leaves no DNA evidence. DNA databases should focus on violent convicted felons both to protect the rights of innocent people and make best use of limited law enforcement resources. It is easy to comply because you know you are innocent but this can make it possible for your freedoms to be eroded little by little. We may all be asked to provide a sample of DNA in the future criminal or not. Everyone should give some thought to the possible consequences and how they think this should be regulated before it is too late to put safe guards in place. It is easier to protect freedoms than it is to try to get them back.