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 47.


    "If you haven't done anything wrong"... Oops sorry. That doesn't apply anymore.

    It's the same with ANPR: Your motion profile is being stored for two years without specific reason. That's only in the UK. The continent is safe without so much surveillance.
    Does currently anybody care about it?

    Bigbrotheristwatching.co.uk - sounds very biassed already. But it contains some good info.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    And just think how, if King Herod had got his own way all those 2000+ years ago by killing baby boys at birth, then this would also surely cut down on rape cases? Effective? Possibly, but acceptable? Doubtful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Given that a significant proportion of crimes are committed by re-offenders, a DNA database containing offenders data clearly is likely to lead to quicker police work and therefore fewer opportunities to re-offend for those who do not reform behaviour. It is unbelievable that some die-hard libertarians still oppose such an obvious and objective crime fighting tool.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    You can get 'intelectual copyright' on some inane piece of vacuous software, or a photograph we've taken on our phone maybe, but apparently we are to have no rights on our very own God given biology? Or any say on which idiot stores it, or how they store it, and why? Again with the governments 'ID cards' attitude of screening our very existence!

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    DNA evidence is circumstantial. It doesn't prove a crime in itself. If you're already on the database, think before you act.

    I own my DNA, if that information were to be shared with anyone I would expect royalties.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    BBC sort it out you flipping twits, some one report this. The other stories we are supposed to be able to comment on, even tho it says I am logged in as soon as I click comment it says I have to complete registration which if I click just takes me back to the main news page. BBC yr crap! Or is it deliberate because they don't really want us to post

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Everyone should have their DNA taken. If only to prevent those morons throwing their used chewing gum on the pavements. Perhaps the same for dogs as well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    See, I don't mind giving my DNA to a database for easearch and the like but perhaps, at this level, is a step too far. I admit, yeah it could help in crime prevention and the like but so would having a police officer follow everyone all the time. It's just impracticle, too costly and a breach on our freedom. Yeah you can say "nothing to hide" silly nonsence but in reality, I just couldnt care

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Think how many crimes could be solved and how many prevented if a DNA sample was taken upon birth or everyone supplied a DNA sample when they entered the country. People would possibly think twice before committing rape etc

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Then surely the argument is for *everyone* in the country, those born here and those arriving as visitors alike, to have their DNA sampled and recorded. A police state can always be justified on grounds of crime reduction, at least those crimes committed by the people. I'll take my chances without a UK DNA database thank you and I applaud the coalition government's removal of data on the innocent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    #35 AGAIN! DNA fingerprinting uses the none-coding parts of the DNA that vary vastly between all of us (because it doesn't do anything) Disease genes which might be of interest to insurance companies are not useful for identifying criminals. They are not on the database and the cost of sequencing all 40,000 genes in us would be prohibitive.

    P.S Most CCTV is so blurred its useless too

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    About to challenge comment @30.John Byng on fingerprints and...then I saw the word "tagging", OK, it was irony.

    Countries with severe punishment & citizen's personal data held didn't bring down crime, & I've had enough of always being watched.

    Comment @29.WiltsBiffa is spot on.

    Couldn't agree more with comment @28.Chris mather, those flippant imbeciles didn't notice decades of police injustice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    CCTV is great for a pervert wanting to spy on little boys and girls. DNA is great for corrupt police officers to sell on to unauthorised organisations eg insurance companies

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    They aren't worrying about their DNA when it comes to getting the next shot.

    It doesn't prevent crime. It makes it easier to catch 'em after the act.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    #32 No database 'owns' your DNA anymore than an ink card of your fingerprints means the 'own' your hands or a photo of your face means they own your head!

    Most of the rest of the posts here are scientific nonsense. You cannot diagnose disease, race, sex etc from the police DNA database (its NONE coding DNA they keep, not genes) You cannot plant it as its such a small part of the whole DNA.

  • Comment number 32.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    If a yob breaks your nose do you think they will get any of his DNA off your hooter? In order to get a DNA sample the police will first of all have to investigate the crime. Still, I suppose it will solve all crimes in the same way that the tens of thousands of CCTV cameras watching our every move has reduced the incidence of street crime to zero.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    What nobody (official) will ever comment on is this: How much crime is society willing to tollerate. This constant attempt to reduce it to zero is doomed to fail. We should just set & accept is a threshold and stick to it.

    However, if you really want to get near zero then I suggest: fingerprints and DNA from birth kept on a database along with tagging of all teens and adults with no exceptions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    They've sold our details often enough, the only thing they haven't sold is our DNA....or maybe they have.

    It's nothing to do with crime, it's money, always money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Everyone who says "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" from police having easy access to their DNA, are idiots.

    Plenty of people have been convicted and given long prison terms for serious crimes (e.g. muder) they did not commit, and in recent years too. Imagine what that would do to your life!!!


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