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 27.

    As somebody said earlier. Innocent until proven guilty. The worrying thing is everybody sees DNA evidence as irrefutable. The quoted accuracy (99.9%) equates to the chances of two people having the same DNA as 1000 to 1. The chances of winning the lottery are 42,000,000 to 1 . . . people seem to manage that every week. Sometimes so many people manage to beat the odds they have to share!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Not every price is worth paying.

    Protecting the freedom of the individual, and large numbers of them, is worth a speculative increase in crime. Note, a speculative increase ... nobody actually knows.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    3. Horse Meat Tesco
    "This government are a bunch of control freaks, obsessed with monitoring their citizens' every movement."

    It was the last government that set these wheels in motion. It's not helpful to play party politics on this - the problem is much deeper. Politicians from all parties seem to think they're there to act IN SPITE of the will of the public, not for their will and benefit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Even with all this DNA data, it would only have put (the apparently innocent) OJ Simpson at the crime scene... not proven his guilt.

    So yes, ''Being there'' can be proven with DNA sampling ... but it doesn't prove guilt. It wouldn't solve more crime, or even prevent it.

    It won't prove that Saville was guilty retrospectively either.

    A well-backed, well-educated, police service is good.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    6. Surly Tapster
    @1 =: Nonsense. If you know your DNA is on a database, you will think twice before committing a serious crime
    Rubbish - People will just come up with more elaborate ways to stop leaving traces of DNA. You can't stop some people from committing crimes. You could almost say it's in their DNA!

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Isn't this as good news for some law breakers as for law keepers? I mean, if there's someone I want to frame, or blackmail, I need only ensure their DNA is spread appropriately about the scene of the crime. As ever, new technology favours neither the good nor the bad.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    People who are not convicted of a crime are INNOCENT.

    The government has no right to snoop on them, or to hold them under suspicion because a police officer saw fit to (incorrectly) arrest them once.

    Maybe if the database is such a good tool, those who advocate it should consent to being arrested to volunteer their samples. I'm sure the stigma would be worth it for a good cause.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I don't think it is right to retain DNA where an arrest occurred but no conviction resulted because for all intends and purposes the arrested person was guilty of no crime. Many people get arrested; few of these are convicted.
    Conviction needs to be the key; conviction means retention of DNA.
    I'm surprised that retention is allowed for even the three years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Under PACE police arrest to effect a capture often just to question people whether JUSTIFIABLY suspected or not. (It was never thus under the previous Judges Rules). Police then have the power to take and retain a sample of our DNA against our free will. Consider how many people are never charged following arrest. Obviously DNA should be taken only IF CONVICTED of an arrestable offence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    To anyone who says "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" - I ask three things
    1. have you heard of the Stasi, Securitate or KGB? If not, search those words. Do you believe it could never happen again? Why?
    2. What if Himmler/Goebbels/Goering/Himmler had the database? Search "Amon Goeth"
    3. if you have an embarrassing illness, would you prefer it to remain private?

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    A large DNA database would obviously reduce crime. It would make detection better so that more criminals can be removed from committing future crime. Also acts as a deterrent.

    Looking from a civil liberties angle, I'm hard pressed to find a reason other than the generic "scope creep" debate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    @2: Nonsense. A DNA database interferes with liberty in no way whatsoever.
    @3: Actually, people with nothing to hide have nothing to fear from a DNA database, and much to gain.
    @4, @5: See my previous post - knowing your DNA is kept somewhere in fact is a magnificent deterrent.

    .........I see the twittering lefties are out in force today.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Horse Meat Tesco (@3) - as opposed the to the previous government who wanted to snoop on just about every aspect of your life?! It even says in the article "The Labour party argues that profiles of people arrested but not convicted should be kept for six years rather than three" !!

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    So the DNA database is getting millions while the forensic archive gets shut down??

    Closure of forensic archive a 'shambles', experts warn
    The closure of the forensic science archive in England and Wales will cause miscarriages of justice and stop police solving crimes, senior politicians, scientists and lawyers have warned.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Either everybody has to contribute their DNA or just those who have been found guilty of a crime. People who have not been convicted are presumed innocent in this ountry and should be treated no differently form any one else.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Seeing as it is only a minority who repeatedly commit crime, pehaps they all should be dna recorded?
    But doubtful if all citizens should be expected to submit to the indignity of being deemed "guilty"so that authorities could behave like Communist China without redress.
    Politicians have already removed freedoms in the guise of Terrorism.
    Stop please!

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Yes it will !!
    if criminals are arrested and and taken out of circulation earlier preventing further crimes
    This is especially true for habitual offenders. It will help prevent a serial criminal having along serial crime

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Yes it will, so just give up all your rights and the entire jurisprudence of common law, the presumption of innocence until guilty and right to privacy -- and enjoy!

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Can it reduce crime? Maybe. It can't stop people initially offending but it can identify people sometimes and be used as evidence to lock people up so that they can't reoffend.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Ethical argument aside, of course it would reduce the likelihood of crime being committed. People get caught and jailed and it's hard to commit crime in jail. Even upon release (or if not jailed) if someone is more likely to get caught they're less likely to offend. One step closer to the pre-cogs in Minority Report! (why can't they use psychics and mediums in that role?)


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