The DNA dilemma: Trading privacy for some peace of mind

April 9, 2015

Have you seen the movie Zodiac? It’s a true story about the search for a serial killer who terrorized Los Angeles during the ‘60s and ‘70s. What sets it apart from most other crime dramas is its frustrating ending. You spend the entire movie mentally accusing one character after another, but the ending just indulges your maddening paranoia by never telling you whodunit.

Fifty years later, the Zodiac killer still hasn’t been found. Alongside Jack the Ripper and the Boston Strangler, he’s now joined a long list of criminals who have never been and may never be caught.

If only these were outdated, isolated cases. Only 53 percent of homicides were solved in D.C. between 1980 and 2008. And Washington isn’t the outlier. Year after year, around 40 percent of homicides remain unsolved nationwide. Clearly, more has to be done to ensure that no criminal escapes justice which puts our safety at risk.

Between 40 and 50 percent of all criminals are first-time offenders, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. In most states, only sex offenders and murderers are required to give a DNA sample to the authorities. Therefore, it is much harder to solve crimes committed by petty criminals and first-time offenders, since it is impossible to identify their DNA—unless, of course, they are already suspects. Nationwide, a full 36 percent of violent crimes are committed by prior culprits of non-violent crime. In California, 21 percent of violent criminals are first-time offenders, according to a survey done by the state’s attorney general. These groups, whose DNA records the police do not currently possess, comprise a majority of all criminals in many areas of the country.

Given the limited amount of funding and personnel available in law enforcement, the more time and resources are poured into one investigation, the less become available for another. Hence, making unsolved cases solvable isn’t the only way we can improve the system. We can also ensure that more time and personnel are freed up for other, more complicated investigations by reducing the time it takes to solve other, simpler crimes like misdemeanors.

More than half of all people who commit crimes aren’t in DNA databanks since they haven’t committed any crimes yet. If the police already had their DNA on file, their crimes would become eminently solvable.

In 2004, California passed Proposition 69, which expanded its DNA database by allowing the collection of DNA samples from felons convicted of all violent crimes. As the measure came into effect in 2009, proponents argued that it would increase the chances of solving rape and murder by 85 percent. Whether or not it is as effective as they claim, it has definitely helped. In 2013, a study by California’s attorney general showed that 92 percent of crimes where DNA evidence was found and linked to a culprit used DNA records from a violent crime that wasn’t rape, murder, or robbery (which are crimes that warranted DNA collection prior to 2009). Hence, 92 percent of DNA links were made thanks to Proposition 69. Some states such as Virginia collect the DNA of all felons, violent or not, and have the highest rate of cases solved using DNA evidence. Imagine how much more we could achieve if we expanded the DNA database even more—to include all citizens—on a federal level.

A lot of people may recoil at that idea, arguing that we would be giving too much information and thereby too much power to our government, opening doors to abuse. What about the abuses that happen every time an innocent man or woman is mistakenly punished for a crime he or she didn’t commit?

The Innocence Project is a non-profit organization that uses DNA testing to prove the innocence of alleged criminals who have been imprisoned for years. Since 1989, it has helped exonerate a total of 328 people. According to some studies, around 20,000 innocent Americans are incarcerated right now. With access to everyone’s DNA, mistakes would be less likely to occur, and these abuses will be curbed.

This isn’t a perfect solution, but safety, security, and justice come at a price. If you don’t give your DNA, neither will a guilty man. I wish that the Zodiac killer would be the last name added to that terrible list of murderers who were never identified, but inaction won’t bring change. Victorian England was powerless against Jack the Ripper, but today we have a three-letter means to stop violent criminals. Is some of your privacy worth leaving murderers at large and innocents behind bars?

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