September 6, 2007

Universal DNA databases looming

Racial and ethical implications debated

DNA databases are great, aren't they? In the last few years, we've heard many a case of an innocent person, languishing in prison, being exonerated by newly discovered DNA evidence. Or, we hear of DNA solving a heinous crime, perhaps even a serial murder. (We see it even more often on TV crime dramas like CSI, but that’s a story for another day.)

DNA databases work best when they contain a lot of genetic data. So, why wait until people are arrested, or even convicted of a crime? Why not swab every single person at birth, before they grow up to commit a crime?

This is not far-fetched. Such a universal database is already underway in Portugal. And now, it's being debated in England, the country that started national DNA databanking a dozen years ago. British officials already have more than 4 million samples (7% of the population, the largest proportion of any nation), and a prominent judge this week proposed cataloging everyone, even visitors to the country.

Paradoxically, proponents of universal DNA banking cite concerns of justice and fairness. The current system amounts to racial and ethnic profiling, they say. Minorities make up far more than their share of those arrested. And even when they are subsequently proven innocent or released without charges, their genetic profiles remain. In England, more than three-fourths of young black men are in the database, compared with only about one in five young white men.

When the databases first caught on in the United States, the laws contained safeguards intended to prevent this. In many states, DNA was only collected upon conviction, and only for very limited types of crimes, typically murder and rape.

But politicians, always looking to boost their tough-on-crime credentials, have expanded DNA banking to an ever-increasing array of offenses. Most recently, laws are following the British trend of collecting DNA from people who are arrested but not convicted. The U.S. Justice Department may now collect DNA from everyone they detain, a policy that will hit immigration violators hardest.

Civil libertarians are up in arms. The expanded laws are creating near-universal DNA databases for black men, they say. As criminologist Simon Cole points out, "Some demographic sectors of American society, such as poor, black, inner-city males, have shockingly low probabilities of getting through adolescence without having at least one run-in with the police. If such encounters trigger inclusion in a DNA database, the database becomes discriminatory."

Opponents also point to the possibility of wrongful incrimination. Reports of errors at DNA laboratories are becoming more common. And the possibility that DNA evidence could be planted is ever more likely. In addition, DNA contains sensitive personal information that could be exploited.

In come cases, law enforcement agencies are utilizing DNA technology in ways that are outside of public awareness or judicial oversight. For example, in an ominous new trend, when investigators cannot match a DNA profile to a crime scene, they may look for close matches and investigate those individuals' family members. Thus, a minor brush with the law can ripple through an entire family.

"In a society in which young black males in some neighborhoods have a one-in-three probability of ending up in state custody at some time in their lives (and an even higher chance of getting an arrest record), the racial overtones of such a practice are dramatic," criminologist Cole notes.

Would a universal database solve discriminatory practices, as proponents claim?

That is unlikely, so long as our criminal justice system continues to disproportionately target certain sectors of the population. In the end, DNA technology could just provide one more powerful tool for discriminatory enforcement.

Thanks to Simon Cole, associate professor of criminology, law, and society at the University of California, Irvine, for his excellent overview of this topic.

See also the American Society of Law, Medicine, and Ethics' web site, "DNA Fingerprinting and Civil Liberties."

Photo credit: Jovika (Creative Commons license)

Additional resources:

DNA and the Criminal Justice System: The Technology of Justice, David Lazer (MIT Press, 2004)

Rights and Liberties in the Biotech Age: Why We Need a Genetic Bill of
Rights, Sheldon Krimsky and Peter Shorrett(Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005).