June 22, 2010

Requiring All Criminals To Give DNA Samples: Good or Bad?

New York Governor David Paterson has proposed doubling the states's DNA database to include samples from even low-level offenders, making it the first state to collect and use evidence to help solve crimes and exonerate people that have been wrongly convicted.

The new law would require adding 48,000 samples a year to a laboratory system that state officials say is capable of handling the extra work.

"You think it'd be a huge explosion, but we have samples on so many people that recommit crimes already - it's the old rule of criminals don't specialize," Sean Byrne, acting commissioner of the Division of Criminal Justice Services, told the Associated Press (AP).

State police have DNA from 356,000 people convicted of felonies and certain misdemeanors, such as petty larceny and endangering the welfare of a child.  The database started in 1996 with the genetic material from killers and sex predators, and has been expanded three times.

The governor's plan has drawn support from a law school center involved in nationwide efforts to use DNA evidence to reverse wrongful convictions.  However, the New York Civil Liberties Union said the latest proposed expansion raises many questions, such as protection of privacy rights, and should be given further study.

Paterson said it would cost $1.6 million more annually for state police to increase data collection in order to obtain a complete list of New York criminals' DNA.

"DNA is the most powerful tool ever discovered to solve crimes, prevent crimes and exonerate the innocent, but remarkably in New York State we are still collecting DNA from only 46 percent of the criminals convicted," he told AP.

Former Governor Eliot Spitzer first proposed the idea in 2007, but it did not win legislative approval.

The Assembly has passed broader legislation sponsored by Democratic Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, calling for the collection of DNA in all crimes and also requiring videotaping of police interrogations - both measures meant to help prevent wrongful convictions.

"As long as we have the innocent guy in prison, the guilty guy is going around committing crimes willy-nilly," Lentol said.

Similar DNA bills exist in the Senate, including one by Senator Eric Schneiderman, a Manhattan Democrat who is running for attorney general.

"We're certainly confident there will be an expansion of the DNA data bank," Schneiderman spokesman James Freedland, told AP.

Warran County District Attorney Kate Hogan, president of the state District Attorney's Association, which supports the expansion, said DNA currently is not collected in most misdemeanors, which is about 53 percent of all convictions.

New York Civil Liberties Union legislative director Robert Perry said there are issues with privacy and the rights of defendants to due process.  He said problems from putting the DNA of thousands of more people into the data bank include the risk of degraded samples, human error in testing labs and even intentional fraud.

"The complexity and importance of the issues raised by the proposal to expand the state's DNA data bank - issues of law, science and public policy - are matched only by the indifference of lawmakers," Perry told AP.

According to the criminal justice department, there were 7,825 positive matches against the state's data bank through April 30, including 137 homicide convictions and 453 sexual assaults.

Since 2006, there have been 652 among those convicted of petty larceny linked to other crimes, including 170 sexual assaults, 72 robberies and 31 homicides.

According to the Innocence Project, there have been 254 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the U.S.  The nonprofit legal clinic, associated with the New York's Cardozo Law School, encourages use of DNA evidence to overturn convictions.

Spokeswoman Emily Whitfield told AP that it is part of a network of about 61 legal clinics doing similar work, 52 of them in the U.S.  The project contains 214 active cases, with 8,000 under evaluation.  It has looked at 36,000 to date and taken 1,250 as clients.

Rob Warden, executive director of the Northwestern University of Law School Center on Wrongful Convictions, said he supports New York expanding its DNA database.  "What we all hope is getting this right," he said.

Byrne said that the New York State Police lab processes offender DNA samples, while it and seven other accredited labs statewide process DNA from crime scenes.

He said the average offender who made a first DNA submission last year had five prior convictions.

Joseph Pollini of the New York Police Department said requiring all criminals to submit DNA would be a huge help because most commit smaller offenses before committing a major crime.


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