Local civil liberties advocates are raising red flags over a state commission’s recent request for legislation mandating anyone convicted of any crime to give DNA evidence.
The Governor’s Commission of Investigation urged, among other crime-fighting recommendations, that New York State expand its DNA databank. This expansion would now apply to people convicted of felonies as well as misdemeanors.
Advocates blasted the proposal last week, saying it would violate privacy and drain local coffers.
New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman said the expansion “would enormously strain the criminal justice systems in every community in the state, exponentially increasing the requirements to collect DNA, while providing no means to do that.” Besides, Lieberman argued, the move is based on a false assumption about DNA evidence—“that a DNA match is tantamount to a criminal conviction.”
Stephen Saloom, policy director for the Innocence Project, agreed. Though “DNA is incredibly useful in solving and preventing specific types of crimes,” he said, “it’s not a panacea for all our criminal justice ills. It would be a mistake to shift resources to DNA databasing.”
But some city officials praised the commission’s plan. “It’s a wonderful idea. DNA has done for us what no other crime-fighting mechanism has ever done,” said Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan, Jr. “There is nothing negative [in the expansion]; There’s an expense tied to the city, and the labs may be overwhelmed, but the benefits far outweigh the expense.”
Even before the recommendation, New York City had greatly expanded its own DNA database, and is in the process of building the largest DNA lab in the country, scheduled to open this November in Manhattan.
“We’ve already expanded our lab to include all rapes and…are getting into burglary now,” said Ellen Borakove, a spokesperson for the city’s chief medical examiner. “It’s a high-intensity lab.”
Margaret Wallace, an associate professor in the forensic science department of John Jay College of Criminal Justice at CUNY, said the expanded database adds more work for the city, but, she added, “I have to assume that they think they can handle it.”
She agreed with the commission’s premise that misdemeanor crimes escalate to more serious offenses and thinks a broader statewide database would give the authorities a better chance of catching criminals before they strike again.
Still, she added, there are administrative concerns. “They need to work out a direct timeline,” she said. “How long does the DNA stay there? If no other crime has been committed within a certain period of time, it should be expunged. It shouldn’t remain in there for life.”
“Making someone vulnerable to the grave becomes fundamentally unfair,” agreed Lieberman.
DA Donovan had no such misgivings. “Time has no role,” he said. “We don’t expunge fingerprints, why should this be exempt?”
But for Saloom, bigger issues loom. “There are an incredible amount of unanswered questions regarding New York’s use of forensic DNA,” he said. “We should demand the state to provide public hearings so the people can appropriately determine the use of DNA in the criminal justice system.”