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Tuesday, March 09, 2010

DNA database: a false hope?

Yesterday's Telegraph reports on a review of the DNA database by the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee that found that an estimated 3,666 crimes are detected a year because someone's profile is already on the system for a previous incident. They say that this is fewer than one in every 1,300 crimes solved in this way.

The paper says that the trend will fuel criticism over the retention of the DNA of innocent people, which the Government has proposed should be kept for up to six years. They say that the committee wants a return to "common sense" policing over the collection of DNA so as to end "flimsy" arrests, such as minor playground fights:

The Human Genetics Commission, a Government watchdog, claimed last year that police are arresting people for "everything" just so they can take their DNA and boost numbers of the national database, which has more than five million profiles.

Chris Sims, the West Midlands Chief Constable, told the Committee that 33,000 crimes are detected each year by matching DNA.

However, that figure includes both crimes that are solved because a known person's DNA was already on the system and also those were a profile is taken from a crime scene and is later matched when someone is arrested, either for that crime or some other reason.

The report said research by Gene Watch estimates the number of incidents where a crime is solved because someone's profile is already on there stands at just 3,666 a year.

It said that is the equivalent of 0.3 per cent of the 1.3 million crimes detected each year. However, when compared against the 4.9 million crimes reported annually, it is the same as one in every 1,336.

The database holds around one million genetic profiles of individuals never convicted of any crime.

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled it illegal to hold these profiles indefinitely.

In response, the Home Office plans to store the DNA of innocent adults who are arrested, but not convicted, for six years before deleting it.

I believe that what this shows is that the DNA database is useful in solving crime and should not be discounted. However, the justification for holding the DNA of innocent people is not supported by the evidence and that better targeting of the database would be more cost-effective, use less police time and be more consistent with the preservation of human rights. It is difficult to see why the government does not see that case.


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