Mon, 20 Jul 2009

Making innocents into honorary criminals

An informed debate on the benefits and risks of sampling the DNA of all arrestees and retaining their DNA profiles in the National DNA Database (NDNAD) is necessary. This is why we have been lamenting the poor quality of the Home Office Keeping the right people on the DNA database consultation as it is distracting from a discussion of the substantive issues. With just over two weeks left to contribute responses, it is helpful to find an analysis by academic experts questioning the scientific argument for 'how long innocent people should be adjudged as “honorary” criminals' and their DNA profiles kept on the NDNAD. Keith Soothill, emeritus professor of social research, and Brian Francis, professor of social statistics, both from Lancaster University published Keeping the DNA link in the New Law Journal [the article is no longer available online but it may re-appear on the publication page of the ESRC National Centre for Research Methods]. The authors found in earlier works that even though offenders may have a diverse criminal career, that the risk for sex offenders and kidnappers to repeat offending is greater soon after their first conviction.

Much has been written in this blog and elsewhere about the confusion in the consultation of the use of data about offenders to justify options about arrestees – who have never been convicted of or admitted to an offence. The authors raise a related issue: 'In fact, arrests are useful indicators of police action but not of guilt. Re-arrests are dangerous indicators and making arrests the pivotal criterion encourages the notion that we are moving towards becoming a police state.' This is made worse by the option suggested by the Home Office where 'DNA information would not be deleted after a certain number of years from first arrest, but from their last arrest.'

An essential confusion between two distinct approaches is made by Soothill and Francis:

In much of the consultation document there is confusion between two types of discourse—a discourse relating to crime and a discourse relating to criminals. A discourse on crime interests the police and largely underpins the scientific analysis in Annex C of the consultation, while a discourse on “honorary” criminals who are created by retention policies interests those concerned with civil liberties. The danger is to assume a one-to-one relationship between a crime and a criminal. In fact, there are many more crimes than criminals. Indeed, there is a remarkable lack of discussion about persistent criminals—a topic that has exercised the mind of the Home Office in recent years. In brief, there is widespread evidence that around 7% of the population account for one-half of all convictions.

This paragraph efficiently clarifies issues in framing investigations and debates about the retention of individuals' DNA. Here's an excerpt from the author's conclusion.

We believe that a more appropriate analysis is needed to justify a retention period of six years. Second, if one is making a case for longer retention periods for those arrested for serious offences, then the only reason for them to be treated differently is that they have a greater risk of a serious offence. In contrast to the consultation document, we do believe that one can measure a heightened risk of a subsequent serious offence, and it should be on this basis that one moves forward with a longer retention period.

A couple of other articles than Keeping the DNA link, also looking at the post ECtHR ruling in S & Marper v UK situation, have recently been published:

You have until 2009-08-07 to send your response before the consultation period closes.

First published on 2009-07-20; last updated on 2009-08-12.

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