Vanessa has recently written about the Darwin debate that we were involved in at UCT. The debate highlighted many social and ethical issues regarding forensic DNA databases. Interestingly, soon thereafter a friend forwarded me two relevant articles that looked at some of these issues from an entirely different perspective. Both articles discussed research into at what convicted persons thought about having their profiles kept on a forensic database. The first was written by Machado et al (2011) after interviewing 31 Portuguese prisoners. These prisoners were between 22 and 49 years of age and had been convicted of a variety of crimes including homicide, rape, drug trafficking, burglary and driving without a permit. The second study conducted by Stackhouse et al (2010) looked at a slightly different group of people – they interviewed 84 young people between the ages of 15 and 19. 72 had been arrested and had their profiles retained on the UK National DNA database. 58 of them had been found guilty of offences ranging from grievous bodily harm and assault to driving offences.
What was especially interesting about the findings of these studies was that the majority of people (those interviewed that have their DNA profiles on a national database) think that their profiles should be there. They also believe that even if someone is found “innocent” and is acquitted then their profiles should be retained on the database. So whilst politicians and human rights groups contend that profiles should not be kept on a database as this infringes on peoples right to privacy, prisoners argue that as the technology associated with forensic DNA analysis is so reliable and accurate, they would prefer for their profiles to be retained on a database. Their reasoning is that they believe that if police have their profiles on record then they can easily be eliminated from investigations following their release from prison. They felt that having their profiles on the database would actually contribute towards protecting them from police automatically assuming that as ex-convicts they would be involved with the perpetration of similar crimes. One young person claimed “If they’ve got your DNA on there just leave it, I mean he knows he ain’t a criminal so just leave it there…. Just to prove again that it wasn’t me.” Another person thought that having your profile removed may actually seem suspicious – “Why would you want it taken off, unless you were up to something…” This is in agreement with the British Home Office’s opinion that “persons who do not go on to commit an offence have no reason to fear the retention of the information”.
Both these articles referred to an earlier publication written by Prainsack and Kitzberger in 2009 where 26 convicted offenders in Austria were interviewed. All but two of the offenders viewed national DNA databases in a positive light. Their reasons included: (1) It helped to catch serious offenders such as rapists, murderers and paedophiles (2) They helped prove innocence (3) They forced police to carry out proper investigations and not to just arrest people who had previously committed similar offences. This study showed that many of those interviewed concurred with the fact that if they had committed an offence then they should be held accountable and that they deserved to be on the database– “If somebody does something, then they should bear the consequences”.
The results of these studies highlight the need to determine what all sectors of the public, including those already on a database, think about what profiles should be entered onto a database and when if ever that information should be removed. Food for thought …….what do you think?