Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Swabbin' Felons

Not too much fanfare around this, but this is the first week for PA House Bill #835, which is:
An act that requires all convicted felons in Pennsylvania to submit a DNA sample to the Pennsylvania State Police. Any felon serving a prison sentence must provide a DNA sample, regardless of if they were convicted before the effective start of the new law. Also removes the statute of limitations for felonies and certain misdemeanor sex offenses for DNA evidence.
Passed last year, this new law increases the number of crimes for which convicts must submit DNA samples. Most of the crimes are sexual in nature, but the new law added burglary, robbery, and kidnapping to the list. These additions were due in part to research that shows criminal behavior changes over time, and people who commit crimes in the burglary and robbery categories are frequently involved in assaults, homicides and sex crimes. Even parolled felons must submit to the testing as the law affects anyone who is under some kind of observation/supervision.

Collected DNA samples are sent to places like the Bode Technology Group for processing. Currently, officials acquire a felon's DNA sample via his/her blood, but they will probably move to the old cotton-swab-in-the-mouth method as it is much more cost effective.

Pennsylvania is only one of the 30+ states that collect DNA material from convicted felons. And from what I heard on the radio this morning, PA got into the game kinda late, but is making serious headway.

And that has some privacy advocates and the ACLU nervous.

Technically, HB #835 covers only felony crimes -- not misdemeanors. And the DNA will only be made available to law enforcement personnel -- not insurance companies and HMOs. But some folks are saying that this is a slippery slope. They claim: Today it's felons, tomorrow traffic violations; and today crime investigators get the data, but tomorrow's insurance adjustors will be using it, too.

Now, I have seen stories attacking the DNA initiative, but not in PA. The bulk of complaints seem to be centered in California.

What say you? Are you worried about Big Brother handling your DNA? Do you agree that convicted felons have -- by the nature of being convicted -- surrendered any personal and privacy rights they enjoyed prior to committing their crimes? Talk to me.


Anonymous said...

Well, I think an enormous amount of crimes could be solved and prevented by such a database, so I think it's a good idea. After all, we keep fingerprints on file already, DNA is just the next step.

There will always be the privacy concerns, IMO, we just have to oversee and audit how the material is being stored and used. I think the greater good is served by collecting the samples.


brainwise said...

The crime-fighting potential of this databank is currently being touted as a big plus, and I don't think they are wrong about that. And, if I am not mistaken, the Supreme Court has ruled that a DNA "fingerprint" is the same thing as the old standby fingerprint -- and fingerprints are kept on file.

And here is another positive aspect about the databank, one that a caller into the Michael Smerconish show pointed out: DNA evidence can clear potential suspects. This caller, a convicted felon who served his time for burglary, noted that if a similar crime were to be committed within a certain radius of his residence, he would be one of the first suspects. DNA evidence at the scene of the crime could confirm that he was not present.

Until someone has a convincing argument, I am for DNA sampling all convicted felons and keeping the information within the law enforcement community. I am against DNA sampling of private citizens, but that has not been seriously pursued ... yet.

Lara said...

I think Jim is right. DNA is this centuries fingerprinting.

Perhaps I, as an individual, should be more concerned about "Big Brother" but in general, I think I prefer methods of data collection that are regulated and public (like getting DNA samples from convicted felons) than the data collection that is done without our knowledge.

What I mean is....if I'm going to be watched by Big Brother, I'd like to know what angle he's watching me from - that way I can make sure to show him my good side. ;)

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that DNA sampling is synonymous with fingerprinting. It is actually a more precise form of identification and changing the law [to add DNA sampling to a convicted felon's file] seems to be just a way of updating police procedures with the appropriate technology.

We seem to worry a lot about setting a precendent with every new law out there. I certainly do not want to suppport paving the way for Big Brother. But is that was this law does? It doesn't seem that way. If it does where is the improper language?

Laws written for convicted felons should not be applied to private law-abiding citizens. That would be a violation of the constitution - of our basic rights to personal freedom.

I see clear benefits to law enforcement as well as to convicted felons [re: being cleared of a suspected crime]. I am unclear about the danger to privacy issues.

Paul said...

Keeping The Law Off Your BodyIMO the heart of this debate lies in the way the US criminal justice system has moved away from the idea of rehabilitation and towards the idea of punishment and containment. The concept used to be this: you commit a crime, you go to prison, you get rehabilitated, they let you out. Some crimes were more grave than others; for a misdemenor the sentence was less severe, and capital crimes warranted by name the death penalty. In the US today we seem to be confused&emdash; are we punishing criminals or are we trying to rehabilitate them?

The advent of the SuperMax(R) prison brought the concept of punishment and rehabilitation to the fore. As a society we seem to have given up on rehabilitating crimals and instead we lock them up to rot. Within this paradigm, I see it being fine to collect criminal DNA simply because we all seem to believe that once we punish the criminals—and if we ever let them out they're bound to commit yet another crime. So we should have their DNA on file so we can nail them when they slip up again (and of course they will).

Of course the upside of this is if you didn't really do it, we've got your DNA to exonerate you. That's good. Personally I've no problem collecting DNA from felons, but only from felons. It is a slippery slope, and we all fear a slippery slope. But yes, DNA is the new fingerprint.

I don't buy the "prevention" of crime. Spending less money on software and (gasp) defense to ensure the law is enforced by having more cops on the street it would also drive crime rates down. I never buy "prevention"... ensuring kids grow up with a good education, have enough to eat, and all that other Paul Wellstone democrat stuff prevents crime and costs less than a prison.