DNA and individual freedom v crime prevention

DNA swab with police evidence bag

Will the government's Protection of Freedoms Act lead to an increase in murders, rapes and other serious crimes? New research from the United States suggests it might.

The legislation, which became law last May, is resulting in many thousands of DNA profiles being removed from the UK's giant DNA database - people arrested but not convicted of a serious offence after three years. Ministers argue that the previous approach, in which DNA samples were kept indefinitely, undermined the freedom of innocent citizens.

Britain pioneered the use of DNA as a crime-fighting tool, introducing the world's first national database in 1985. Today it holds the profiles of more than five million people and is credited with helping solve some 40,000 crimes a year.

The US, Canada, Australia and most European countries have followed the UK's lead, with DNA profiling internationally regarded as the most important breakthrough in modern policing. Until now, though, there has been little scientific research on whether such databases really do reduce offending.

Last month Jennifer Doleac, assistant professor of public policy and economics at the University of Virginia, published a paper entitled The Effects of DNA Databases on Crime, which suggested that size matters: "larger DNA databases reduce crime rates".

The paper estimates that each new profile added to the US DNA database - the Combined DNA Index System, or Codis - resulted in 0.57 fewer serious offences. Uploading a profile costs about $40, which means that in 2010 the database cost the American taxpayer $30.5m but, according to the research paper, saved a whopping $21bn in crime prevention.

Retaining DNA from individuals who are not convicted of an offence is as controversial in the US as it is in the UK. Some American states do keep samples from people arrested but not convicted while others do not. So the University of Virginia study was able to compare the two approaches.

Ms Doleac calculates that if every state kept the profiles of people arrested but not convicted, the US would see a fall of 3.2% in murders, 6.6% in rapes and 5.4% in vehicle thefts.

Sean Hodgson, who wrongly spent 27 years behind bars for murder DNA advances have also resolved miscarriages of justice such as the case of Sean Hodgson

This conclusion flies in the face of current British government policy that does the opposite. In a Commons debate in October 2011, Home Office Minister James Brokenshire challenged the suggestion "that the more people's DNA is on the database, the more effective it is".

He made the point that in 2004/5 there were 2.8 million people on the database and 35,605 detections. In 2009/10 there were 4.8 million profiles but 32,552 detections.

However, it's also true that in 2008/9 there were 79 murder, manslaughter or rape cases in which DNA was matched to individuals who had been arrested but not convicted.

The Labour party argues that profiles of people arrested but not convicted should be kept for six years rather than three. The Association of Police Officers says even that change would lead to an extra 1,000 crime/profile matches a year.

With the murder rate in England and Wales now at its lowest level since Jim Callaghan was prime minister, there are many theories as to why violent crime has seen such a significant fall in recent years. One answer is the DNA database.

It is broadly accepted that there is a balance to be struck between crime prevention and individual freedom. This new research adds a little more evidence to help decide where the balance should lie.

Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    Can't see the worry. No-one's going to mistake your DNA for a murderer's; the science is a bit more sophisticated than that. DNA makes misidentification virtually impossible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    This is Big Brother... I am here to help... please turn on the TV and relax...

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    Having been arrested twice I have had my DNA taken, I was released without charge both times, Now the police have my DNA which could turn up at a crime scene and i will instantly be a suspect..... I only have to have been at a place a recent crime was commited, a friends house, a shop, anywhere this surely is wrong!

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    The fact we live in a situation where our 'leaders' are 'elected' - especially with an electoral system which has very frequently allowed leaders to be elected on far less than 50% of the vote - and normally less than 20% of the people - is the most obvious reason not to give them the chance to abuse power. Hitler came from a democracy. As have others of a similar vein.

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    One of the issues is how and why Police collect DNA samples. I have seen a young girl have her DNA swabbed in the middle of the street after having committed no crime. She, and her friends, were simply stopped and questioned and then three of them were 'asked, coerced or bullied' into giving up a DNA sample. The Police are abusing the system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    118.Looternite - ".....but we live in a Parliamentary Democracy not a totalitarian state, therefore references to East Germany are not valid.
    Having an effective police force does not make us a police state."

    Because the Police & or Govt. of the day never abuse their power, ever? Hillborough, Shrewsbury 6 etc etc etc all but ad infitum.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    The US lobby firm, Gordon Thomas Honeywell Governmental Affairs, lobbies governments all over the world on behalf of the world’s leading producer of DNA testing equipment. I read in the meeting notes of the UK Policing improvement Authority(NPIA) that they are worried about being tied to one single supplier of DNA test kits. Make you wonder if they placed this blatant propaganda on BBC-Not-News?

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    The 'assistant' professor may know something about politics, lies damned lies and statistics. Fact is all biometric data bases become less effective, not more effective, the more junk DNA you load on them. The reason more chances of false positives! The scientific explanation to be found in a different discipline and is very well explained in a wikipedia article called the birthday paradox/problem

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    Outrageous article, no doubt planted by the same old lies peddling DNA lobby Firm. I note that the discredited phrase" DNA was matched to individuals who had been arrested but not convicted" is being used. An extra data base match is not necessarily an extra conviction. Even crime scene contaminating PC plod will come up as a DNA match only to be excluded (hopefully) a few seconds later.ShameBBC

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    117. Little_Old_Me

    Sorry my friend, but we live in a Parliamentary Democracy not a totalitarian state, therefore references to East Germany are not valid.
    Having an effective police force does not make us a police state.

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    114.Looternite - "As a law abiding citizen with nothing to hide..........."

    Ah, the "good old" Stazi hey?

    They were the ones with the motto "if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear".......

    ....and of course everyone nkows that was patnently untrue.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    DNA's derivative use: there are many valuable potential uses. e.g. If DNA was taken at birth, it could be used for medical diagnoses (& potential cures & research); identification pusposes for important documents (like passports), as well as CSI-type criminal validation. By getting panicky about Govt mischief, we may be doing ourselves out of billions of dollars worth of valuable utilization.

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    Consider what DNA can prove - in most cases merely that you, or at least an item used at some time by you, were present at the location where a crime has been committed. It rarely even shows you were there WHEN the crime was committed. (The one exception is rape, where it can show that you had intercourse with the alleged victim, but not whether or not it was by consent!)

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    As a law abiding citizen with nothing to hide. I have no problem if everybody's DNA is on the database.
    We could start by taking DNA from every baby born in UK and that being linked to their birth certificate.
    Crime down and identity theft reduced, simple.

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    It is to enhance British “blaming” culture. I was a victim of robbery last year. Although I lost a lot of money, I was grateful that the guy didn’t harm me. Sometimes, we should leave small leak holes for criminals, which save lives.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    Not another excuse to have us all DNA'd.
    How long will it be before a government decides to use this data for its corporate masters?
    We already had the health screening excuse
    Now its crime prevention.

    Both will lead to insurance companies using data and excluding high risk people, which will mean not getting insurance on stuff that's mandatory.
    After that comes arianism.

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    Anyone who thinks finding a suspect using just their DNA is a good idea should read this article in full.


  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    We have sleep walked into 1984 - time to wake up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    Four concerns:

    The ability to create DNA from scratch now exists.

    Large databases, public or commercial, cannot be guarenteed safe from loss and/or hacking.

    A small minority of the Police are dodgy as.

    Some criminals will go miles to frame A N Other for their offenses.

    Put those 4 together & you have a recipe for mis carriages of justice galore I'm afraid......

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.


    Research shows that the most effective way to reduce crime is for criminals to fear being caught.

    On the oppsoite end of the spectrum Bobbies on the Beat has no impact, except for the immediate vicinity of the Bobbies - their presence in one st simply pushes the crime into neighbouring roads...

    ...& we can't afford a bobbie on every st......


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