Actually, quite a lot.
N.Y. Governor Spitzer announced recently his proposal to greatly expand the use of DNA testing in the New York criminal justice system. Under the current system, DNA is collected (via a mouth swab with a giant Q-tip) from people convicted of only the most serious crimes — rape, murder, burglary. Spitzer’s proposal, which has been kicking around the state legislature for some time now, would require that DNA be collected from ALL people convicted of ANY crime, including misdemeanors. Get convicted of pot possession? The state’ll have your DNA. Get arrested and convicted for protesting against a political convention? Yep, your DNA gets sampled too. The plan would also require the collection of samples from everyone currently incarcerated, on probation, and on parole.
The upshot to Spitzer’s proposal, and what makes it different from the old proposals, is that criminal defendants would have access to the state DNA database too, and could use it to prove their innocence. It would also require that prosecutors notify the court if they find out that there might be DNA that would exonerate the accused.
The upshots sound pretty good. DNA evidence has been used to exonerate over 200 people who were wrongly convicted and who have spent up to 30 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. DNA can be as powerful a tool for defendants as it is for prosecutors. But NY’s plan – for all the talk of equanimity – goes too far.
First of all, prosecutors are already under a duty to report evidence that exonerates the accused. The NY plan just codifies that. Second, DNA is not like fingerprints, which can only be used for a specific purpose. DNA evidence, once collected, provides a wealth of information to the government. Information that may have nothing to do with whether or not the person from whom the DNA is collected committed a specific crime. I don’t know about you, but I am not too keen on turning people’s most sensitive information over to the government at a time when it’s clear that the government does not respect its citizens’ privacy. Third, DNA evidence is not foolproof — but juries often think it is. The New York Civil Liberties Union, which opposed a similar program proposed by NYC Mayor Bloomberg last year, reports on the perils of relying too heavily on DNA:
In the past five years the use of DNA by law enforcement has come under increasing scrutiny by critics who have documented cases in which the use of DNA has been subject to gross negligence and intentional abuse. The Houston Police Department closed its DNA lab in 2003 after it released from prison two men who had been falsely incriminated by faulty lab work. In 2004, a Seattle Post-Intelligencer report documented 23 errors that the Washington State Patrol laboratory had made in the investigations of serious crimes.
So what are we to do? We want to protect people from wrongful convictions while also ensuring that convicted rapists can be easily caught should they rape again. I’m not saying DNA should never be collected. But there’s a balance that can be struck. The governor’s proposal ignores the possibility of a more evenhanded approach and puts a heavy hand on the justice scale.
(also at AB&B)
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