Fighting Crime with One Hand Behind Our Backs
During the 1990s,
a vicious criminal was preying on women on the South Side of Chicago.
The first victim was found beaten to death in a vacant lot in
1993. Police found DNA evidence at the scene. They found DNA evidence
from the same assailant in seven other murders and a rape. But
they couldn't match it to anyone.
Finally, in 2000,
police arrested a man who had been seen with two of the victims
shortly before they died. Andre Crawford confessed, a DNA analysis
implicated him, and he was ultimately charged with killing 11
You could interpret
that outcome as a great success for our use of DNA technology
in law enforcement. Or you could interpret it as a huge, tragic
1993 and 2000, the years encompassing his alleged spree of rape
and murder, Crawford was arrested four times. But Illinois law
allows police to take DNA samples only from suspects who have
been convicted. So his genetic profile never showed up in the
state database, where it could have been matched to that of the
Had it been taken
when Crawford was picked up for felony theft in 1993, he could
have been stopped after the first murder. Ten women who are now
dead might be alive today.
DNA is one of the
most valuable and reliable tools ever conceived for law enforcement
and criminal justice. It has been used to solve a wide array of
crimes that otherwise would have gone unpunished, and it has freed
hundreds of people who were mistakenly convicted and even sent
to death row. It offers vast benefits in preventing crime. But
we have yet to take the obvious step to realize its potential.
As a rule, police
fingerprint everyone they arrest. Those prints are kept on file,
where they can be matched against those found at crime scenes.
But when it comes to DNA, the cops are fighting crime with one
hand tied behind their backs. The prevailing practice across the
country is to take DNA samples only from people convicted of felonies.
That greatly limits the number of samples in state and federal
DNA databases that can yield hits.
But the U.S. Senate
wants to change that policy as far as the federal government is
concerned. Recently it approved a measure that would mandate the
collection of DNA samples from everyone arrested or detained by
federal agents, and would allow some states to submit samples
from their arrestees. DNA is to the 21st century what fingerprints
were to the 20th. So why shouldn't it be used just as extensively?
already answered that question by saying, "No reason at all."
Last year, they approved a ballot initiative requiring the collection
of DNA samples from anyone convicted of a felony or certain other
offenses. Starting in 2009, under the new law, every adult who
is merely arrested for a felony will have to surrender his DNA.
Some civil liberties
groups oppose these changes because DNA, unlike fingerprints,
contains a wealth of personal information that might be misused
by the government. That's not a trivial concern. But laws already
contain strict provisions to assure that DNA can be used only
to identify criminals.
Critics also think
it's unfair to keep the DNA of people who may be innocent. But
the unfairness is minimal. You don't suffer any injury from having
your genetic information on file with the cops -- unless you decide
to commit a crime.
In any case, the
small risk of abuse has to be weighed against the huge potential
benefits. The bigger the database, the more crimes will be solved,
the more crimes will be prevented, and the more innocent lives
will be spared.
British police now
are allowed to take swabs from anyone arrested for a crime carrying
a prison sentence. As a result, they now have 2.5 million genetic
profiles, which is the largest in the world as a share of its
population. Our national database, by contrast, has only 2.7 million
samples -- even though our population is nearly five times larger
is that the British catch a lot more criminals than we do. The
FBI system has gotten 16,309 hits since it began operating seven
years ago. The British get 50,000 matches a year.
In recent years,
DNA has shown its enormous worth in exonerating the innocent.
Now we need to put it to full use catching the guilty.
Copyright 2005 Creators Syndicate
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