DNA Breakthrough

The ways in which societies are policed have been enhanced greatly by rapidly-improving technology. It has improved efficiency, reliability and, more importantly, it has proved invaluable in protecting lives. A brief look at the ways in which we communicate, compared to the previous few generations is one of the more obvious demonstrations of this. Radio technology now complements email and wireless technology, for instance, making for much faster and much more effective communication, which has helped to prevent crime as well as allow us to respond to crime much more quickly.

Scientists have now discovered more efficient ways of recognising DNA, and it has become possible to separate DNA strands, which previously would have been discarded as “contaminated”, where it has been mixed with the DNA of one or more people. This is yet another welcoming advancement, promising to solve several cases, especially those where the victims of violent crime are unable to identify the perpetrator, or where evidence is currently insufficient to ensure conviction.

Notwithstanding, it would be unwise not to assess the pros and cons of the blanket implementation of such technology. The DNA database used to match the crime with the criminal consists solely of previous offenders and, more worryingly, those who are simply suspected of a crime and have never been convicted. For the greater, law-abiding majority, this would not apparently be a cause for concern, but perhaps this will change when we look closely at the trends for taking DNA samples.

Institutionalised racism is not simply a concept to be limited to newspaper headlines and diversity training; it is a statistical fact that the black and Minority Ethnic population – and particularly black men – are four times more likely to be stopped and searched. They are also much more likely to be arrested and released without charge. The result is a very costly waste of time, not just for the police, but also for the innocent suspect who may spend perhaps several hours in custody and experience unnecessary distress, unlikely to be acknowledged or compensated for.

Given this huge disproportion among racial lines, it is likely that much of these arrests without charge are down to “fishing trips”: a suspect may seem suspicious because of his or her race, and this may be compounded by other factors, such as their clothing, their demeanour, or simply where they happen to be at the time they are stopped. Whatever the reasoning behind it, 37% of black men have their DNA recorded on the police database. The vast majority without being charged, let alone convicted of a crime.

The implications of using any technology that relies on our DNA database in its current state is that, by stealth, it will almost certainly result in more Minority Ethnic people being sent to prison, given that 37% of the Black men and 13% Asian men have their DNA registered, compared to just 9% White men. It could also see an increase in police “fishing trips”: if a great number of black offenders are caught as a result, less competent officers may be inclined to come to the conclusion – whether consciously or otherwise – that black people are more likely to offend. Given the current status quo, which already suggests there is some element of “fishing” for black offenders, it is not absurd to suggest that we may be one step away from sparking a re-emergence of the “sus” law of the 1980s, and the reaction that it received: it was seen as effectively criminalising being Black in public, and provoked great mistrust and resentment in many areas around the country with large BME populations.

Not taking advantage of this new DNA technology, however, is unquestionable. We cannot deny progress, and our duty is to make sure that criminals are punished and the public is safe from crime and the fear of crime.

The only solution, therefore, is to re-assess the way in which the DNA database works. One failsafe way to ensure total fairness would be to register the DNA of the entire population, and this would undoubtedly create interesting results. How many lawmakers would happily have their identity stored on the system along with the criminals and suspects? How would the Prime Minister react to having to do this, along with the rest of his family? And, if they are unprepared to do this, why is it, therefore, acceptable for a great proportion of innocent black and minority ethnic people to have their details listed, simply down to an inherent bias?

Criminals of all races deserve to be prosecuted and held account for their crimes but, somewhere along the line, we need to make sure that our system does not favour those of the majority, white population.

Keith Jarrett
16 October 2006