Ten African-American men wrongfuly convicted of murder in Cook County, IL were exonerated last week. After spending the better part of their lives in jail, DNA evidence was finally accepted by the state's attorney and the men were released. In Cook County, DNA evidence helped right a terrible injustice and led police to the actual killer. But some racial justice groups are concerned about forensic databases expanding rapidly without oversight.
The Innocence Project reports that DNA testing proves innocence in about 43% of their cases. In more than 40% of all DNA exoneration cases, law enforcement is also able to identify the actual perpetrator. But on the heels of the victory in Cook County comes a report that raises a series of thought-provoking questions about the unintended consequences of large-scale DNA collection.
Generations Ahead, an advocacy group focusing on genetic technology and human rights, just released a report that reveals that nearly 10 million people nationwide have their genetic information stored in DNA databases and maintained by law enforcement agencies. What was once used as a tool to track people with convictions for violent offenses is increasingly used to keep tabs on people who have never been convicted of any crime at all. Additionally, authorities operate under an extremely broad mandate when it comes to DNA testing, a clear sign that this technology has advanced much faster than our ability (or willingness) to regulate it.
Of particular interest to the ColorOfChange community, Generations Ahead has been examining the impact of DNA collection on communities of color, which have historically been discriminated against by investigative practices. Consider this: A young Black teenager is picked up for truancy and brought to a police station where her DNA is sampled and placed on record forever. Without ever receiving a felony conviction, the teen's genetic information enters a database that places her on a list of suspects for future crimes. Years later as police swab a crime scene for evidence, they can scan this database and her name could appear as a match -- an occurrence that could subject her and her family members to investigation. Stories like this were discussed in an earlier report by Generations Ahead, which you can check out here.
But what's the problem if DNA collection can support good, solid police work or lead to exonerations like what we just saw in Cook County? The answer may be found in part in a recent ruling by the 1st District Court of Appeal. The court shut down a proposition that would permit the DNA collection of every adult arrested on a felony charge. Judges expressed concerns about the provision's constitutionality in the absence of warrants or any degree of reasonable suspicion.
The court raised a question around privacy and First Amendment rights. Generations Ahead's report goes even further, arguing that the police will have an incentive to pick up as many people as possible if their ability to solve crimes is enhanced the more DNA samples are in the database. In other words, these technological advances threaten to usher us into a phase of even more aggressive policing.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments section.