Devon Douglas-Bowers | The Hampton Institute | Truthout | June 29, 2013
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court passed down a ruling stating that it is legal to take DNA swabs from arrestees without a warrant on the grounds that “a DNA cheek swab [was similar] to other common jailhouse procedures like fingerprinting;” and this week, it was reported that the New Jersey state senate passed a bill that “would require the collection of DNA samples from people convicted of some low-level crimes, including shoplifting and drug possession.” While many are praising the passing of such legislation, it ignores the inherent dangers of allowing the government to collect DNA.
While DNA databases may seem new, this is only because they are recently coming back into the news. They have been around for quite some time as, since 1988, “every US state has established a database of criminal offenders’ DNA profiles” with the goal of “quickly and accurately [matching] known offenders with crime scene evidence.” Politicians are arguing that taking DNA samples of criminals will actually lower crime, as the DNA works as a deterrent by increasing the likelihood that a criminal will be convicted if they are caught. However, this may not be the case, as a working paper from the University of Virginia found last year that, “The probability of reoffending and being convicted for any offense is 3.7 percentage points (23.4%) higher for those with a profile in the DNA database than those without,” (emphasis added) and, that DNA profiling mainly affects younger criminals with multiple convictions, as they are “85.6% more likely to be convicted of a crime within three years of release than their unprofiled counterparts.” Thus, on a practical level, we should be skeptical as to whether or not DNA databases will actually lower crime in the long-term.
A separate but equally important issue in regards to these DNA databases is the assault on our privacy. Barry Steinhardt, then-Associate Director of the ACLU, stated back in 2000 that:
“While DNA databases may be useful to identify criminals, I am skeptical that we will ward off the temptation to expand their use,” said Barry Steinhardt, Associate Director of the ACLU. “In the last ten years alone, we have gone from collecting DNA only from convicted sex offenders to now including people who have been arrested but never convicted of a crime.”