PROJECTSDNA Databases and Justice

What You Can Do

  • Join us for a webinar on December 7. Presenters will include:
    Marina Ortega, Managing Director, Generations Ahead and Michael Risher, ACLU Northern California Staff Attorney

The collection and storage of DNA evidence in the criminal justice context is expanding rapidly and with very little public debate. Exponentially increasing forensic DNA databases raise important concerns related to growing racial inequities, eroding civil liberties and diminishing returns at a time when our current criminal justice system is buckling under exploding costs.

Executive Summary from upcoming report: Forensic DNA Database Expansion: Growing Racial Inequities, Eroding Civil Liberties and Diminishing Returns

There is little doubt that DNA plays an important role in the criminal justice system. Many of us are familiar with the heart-wrenching stories of people exonerated through DNA evidence after serving years in prison for crimes they did not commit, or the survivors of sexual assault whose assailants were apprehended thanks to DNA matches.

These examples are powerful reminders of the utility of DNA, but they only tell part of the story of DNA in the criminal justice system. Forensic DNA databases, first introduced in the 1990s to track convicted violent felons, today store and permanently retain the DNA of 10 million people, many of whom have never been convicted of a crime.

Our report, Forensic DNA Database Expansion focuses on three key social justice concerns that demand more public discussion and policy debate:

Further entrenchment of racial and ethnic inequities. Blacks and Latinos have a greater and unequal probability of having their DNA collected and stored. Given the existing racial bias in other aspects of the criminal justice system, we need to ensure that DNA databases do not unfairly and disproportionately affect communities of color.

Erosion of civil liberties. Currently, 25 states collect the DNA of all people who are arrested for—not just convicted of—a felony, and a new technique called familial searching is being used to investigate relatives of suspects who have an existing profile in a DNA database. We need to promote public safety without threatening civil liberties.

A system undermined by a backlog of DNA samples. Evidence from violent sexual offenses often takes months or years to test due to the backlog caused by the expansion of DNA databases. We need to ensure that the criminal justice system can integrate new DNA technology without harming efficiency and even justice itself.

In addition to exploring key social justice concerns, this paper outlines important steps that state governments should take to safeguard fairness, accuracy and effectives in the use of forensic DNA databases:

Implement California’s policy for familial searching that stipulates that requiring DNA samples from suspects’ family members can be used only in cases of rape or murder where there is a serious risk to public safety, and that a committee of attorneys and forensic experts evaluate all requests to use the technique.

This policy, currently does not, but should include a protocol that requires a judge to sign-off after finding that all the requirements are met and the government should also submit an annual report stating how many times it applied for authority to search and how many were approved.

Destroy each DNA sample after a DNA profile has been created, and expunge both the DNA sample and the profile of innocent individuals.

Limit the use of forensic DNA databases to cases that involve violent crimes so that offenders can be caught quickly.

Require independent and transparent oversight of both state and federal DNA testing labs to ensure the integrity and quality of the process and results.

To keep from repeating mistakes that led to current inequities in the criminal justice system, it is critical that we engage in a robust public dialogue about how to use new DNA technologies while also ensuring that these technologies contribute to and do not hinder effectiveness, efficiency and, most of all, justice.