So what’s all this about a DNA Bill? (and a glass of bubbly to boot!)

I was sent the below write up by one of our Trainer’s, which I hope the author (known only as  ‘paulkenni’ ) does not mind me reproducing below, simply because I think it explains the impact of the new DNA Bill in a clear and logical manner.  My colleague, Carolyn, who is a geneticist may cringe at the way in which ‘paulkenni’ relates my layman’s description of a forensic DNA profile, but for all those non-scientists out there, I am sure it will make perfect sense!

I, for one am going to have a good weekend, despite the Cape’s foul weather forecast,  knowing at least that we finally have a sound and solid legal framework upon which to build and expand our National Forensic DNA Database. It has been a long haul, but the adoption of the DNA Bill by the Portfolio Committee for Police this week, is a huge milestone for South Africa. Its successful and effective implementation is going to be the next BIG challenge, but hey, who said I was going anywhere?

So, with a heartfelt and resounding thanks to all of our supporters out there, cheers! I am now going out for a well deserved glass of bubbly!

Vanessa Lynch

Friday, 16th August 2013

The DNA Bill has been approved!

The DNA Bill has been approved!

You may have heard, in the last day or two, about the ‘DNA Bill’ being approved in Parliament. This is a really exciting step forward for science and for the reach of law in South Africa. This post will look into the history and effectiveness of DNA profiling, and what in means in this country.

Firstly, let’s look at what exactly we are talking about. The generally accepted  approach is to take a DNA sample from a criminal or suspect, and record a number of unique markers, called loci. I once heard Vanessa Lynch, founder of The DNA Project,  compare the process to paging through a number of books and recording the letters at a number of specific positions in each book. You could identify the book if those letters were linked to the book in a database, but on their own, those letters mean nothing. This allows an accurate and reliable identification of the individual, without a record of any potentially discriminatory DNA data. This information, known as a DNA profile, is then put into a database…[ and compared to the DNA profiles collected from crime scenes to see if there is a potential match].

Various countries around the world have implemented DNA profile databases – a 2008 Interpol report (PDF) states that 54 countries have a national database. The most comprehensive databases are in the USA and the UK, unsurprisingly. The only major difference between these various databases is their inclusiveness, which is where the delays around implementation in SA have arisen. Inclusiveness refers to which DNA profiles can be kept in the database. One of the most inclusive databases is the National DNA Database (NDNAD) in the UK, where any suspect’s DNA profile may be stored indefinitely [my comment:  this law is being changed in September 2013 and a retention framework similar to SA’s will be effected where person’s not convicted will have their profiles removed within certain time frames]. In the USA, this is illegal — any DNA profile of a person not convicted of a crime must be expunged from the database and the sample must be destroyed after a certain time. The inclusiveness of the NDNAD has caused some civil rights groups to object to storing the DNA profile of innocent people, claiming an infringement of the right to privacy. [my comment — the new DNA Bill in SA will only allow for convicted offenders profiles to be stored indefinitely on the DNA Database and for arrestees profiles to be removed within strict time periods if the arrest does not result in a conviction].

So, the DNA Bill, or rather the Criminal Law (Forensic Procedures) Amendment Bill. This has been in the pipeline for around five years – the infrastructure has been in place for some time, but civil rights concerns over privacy and potential for exploitation by corrupt officials have kept it in the planning stages. The bill authorises the establishment and maintenance of a database with profiles from both convicted criminals and suspects (the samples themselves will be destroyed).

While implementation has been raised as a very real concern, this has to be seen as a great step forward for our country. The most obvious benefit is an improvement in conviction rates – DNA evidence is a very compelling argument for conviction in court. Then we come to the more nebulous benefits, such as decreasing criminal activity. Hard and fast numbers are hard to come by, but this study (PDF) shows a very real decrease in crime as a result of DNA databasing, especially in crimes where evidence is left behind, such as assault, theft and murder.

An interesting point in all of this is the role of DNA databases in getting early offenders on the database. Criminals, on the whole, do not wake up one day and decide to murder someone – rather, they may start with robbery, then assault, then eventually move on to murder. If their DNA profile is stored after the first offence, conviction for the second or third offence will be that much easier.

While it may be some time before we see the benefits of this Bill on our daily lives, it is surely an exciting step for science in South Africa. If nothing else, it will provide graduate scientists with a few more job opportunities.

2 Responses to “So what’s all this about a DNA Bill? (and a glass of bubbly to boot!)”

  1. Lucinda Kirkaldy says:

    Well done Vanessa, tremendous work; I had not heard of your family’s sad loss, your father was a great man. This is surely a tribute to him and a service of note for future generations. Thank you.