EXPRESS CHECKOUT

DNA database debate

Posted in Law + Social Policy, Science + Health by expresscheckout on 5 September, 2007

All UK ‘must be on DNA database’ 
September 5, 2007
BBC News

The whole population and every UK visitor should be added to the national DNA database, a senior judge has said.

Lord Justice Sedley told BBC News the current England and Wales database, which holds DNA from crime suspects and scenes, was “indefensible”. He added it would be fairer to include “everybody, guilty or innocent” on it.

The Home Office said the database of four million profiles had helped solve criminal cases, but to expand it would raise logistical and ethical issues. Critics say those who commit certain offences should have their details removed after a set period.

The DNA database – which is 12 years old – grows by 30,000 samples a month taken from suspects or recovered from crime scenes. It is the largest in the world. The data of everyone arrested for a recordable offence in England and Wales – all but the most minor offences – remains on the system regardless of their age, the seriousness of their alleged offence, and whether or not they were prosecuted. It includes some 24,000 samples from young people between 10 and 17 years old, who were arrested but never convicted. In Scotland, DNA samples taken when people are arrested must be destroyed if the individual is not charged or convicted.

Sir Stephen Sedley, who is one of England’s most experienced appeal court judges, said: “Where we are at the moment is indefensible. “We have a situation where if you happen to have been in the hands of the police then your DNA is on permanent record. If you haven’t, it isn’t… that’s broadly the picture. It means that people who have been arrested but acquitted, some of them because they are innocent, some of them because they are just lucky, all stay on the database. It means where there is ethnic profiling going on disproportionate numbers of ethnic minorities get onto the database. It also means that a great many people who are walking the streets and whose DNA would show them guilty of crimes, go free.”

He said reducing the database would be a mistake. He knew of cases where a serious offender who had escaped conviction had ultimately been brought to justice by DNA evidence that may have been otherwise destroyed.

‘Going forwards’

He said the only option was to expand the database to cover the whole population and all those who visit the UK. “Going forwards has very serious but manageable implications. It means that everybody, guilty or innocent, should expect their DNA to be on file for the absolutely rigorously restricted purpose of crime detection and prevention.”

But Professor Stephen Bain, a member of the national DNA database strategy board, warned expansion would be expensive and make mistakes more likely. “The DNA genie can’t be put back in the bottle,” he said. “If the information about you is exposed due to illegal or perhaps even legalised use of the database, in a way that is not currently anticipated, then it’s a very difficult situation.”

 Home Office Minister Tony McNulty said there were no plans to introduce DNA profiling for everyone in the UK, but “no-one ever says never”. “I have said in the past I think there is a case for a compulsory database. It would be a huge endeavour, both in practical terms and have real ethical and political dimensions to it,” he said.

Mr McNulty denied the current database was unfair and said it had helped police solve as many as 20,000 crimes a year. He said any imbalance in the number of black and white youths whose DNA was stored reflected disproportionality in the Criminal Justice System rather than an inherent problem with the database. But Mr McNulty added he was glad a debate had begun and a review of how DNA samples were kept would be published next February.

Tony Lake, chief constable of Lincolnshire Police and chairman of the DNA board, said there needed to be a debate. “If people have been convicted or have been arrested for offences which involve violent crime or offences of a sexual nature, I think there is an argument [that DNA] should stay on the database for life,” he said. “If we are talking about very minor offences… I don’t think that it’s a problem to say let’s have a means by which we would reassess if we want to keep that DNA.”

See also: ACPO

Forensic Science Service

Home Office

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