Sunday, 9 September 2007

The DNA database proposal threatens civil liberties, is unlikely to prevent violent crime

reposted from Guardian

Mark Braund

The end of idealism

If technology - such as the DNA database - keeps presenting short-term fixes to social problems, we will have no incentive to build a better society.

September 8, 2007 12:00 PM | Printable version

There are many reasons why Lord Justice Sedley's call for mandatory DNA sampling should be firmly opposed, most were well rehearsed in the comments following James Randerson's post yesterday.

But even if someone could persuade me that the ends (detecting and punishing serious crime) justify the means (a further considerable incursion into the civil liberties of law abiding citizens), and that it was feasible to compile and maintain such a database, I would have grave reservations for another reason.

Technological advances are increasingly delivering supposed solutions to all manner of social and economic problems. In this case,

advances in DNA technology hold out the possibility that all those culpable for serious crimes could be brought to justice.
The problem with such technology-inspired fixes is that they generally only tackle the symptoms of complex social problems, rather than engaging with, and addressing, the root causes.

If you believe that all murderers, rapists and other violent criminals are born evil, and were always going to offend, whatever their experience of life as youngsters, then the promise held out by a mandatory DNA database will probably strike you as the ultimate weapon in the struggle against violent crime.

If, on the other hand, you think there's more to it; that a fair proportion violent offenders turn to crime at least in part because of some avoidable aspect of their early years experience, and that their criminality is not therefore inevitable, then you should consider carefully the implications of the DNA database proposal.

If you will permit me a moment of idealism: one conclusion of the unfolding process of social evolution would, presumably, be a society without crime. Movement towards this goal is dependent on our gaining a better understanding of the causes of certain individuals turning to crime, and on our generating the political will to address those causes once identified.

Over the last few decades, despite the promises of politicians ("Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.") we have largely given up investigating and trying to address root causes in favour of reactionary quick fixes which are often no fix at all.

If we were to rely on an expanded DNA database to deliver justice, we would have even less incentive to strive to improve society by tackling the environmental factors that contribute to people becoming violent criminals. We would doubtless celebrate our achievement in developing technology that enabled us to catch and punish all murderers and rapists, but the crimes would still be committed and the victims and their families would still endure unimaginable pain.

Would it not be better to direct our efforts towards measures that might help to reduce the incidence of violent crime in the first place? Pre-emptive justice is surely preferable to the retributive justice we settle for today.

You might argue that the existence of a DNA database would act as a deterrent. But I'm not sure that even a cast-iron guarantee of being caught would make much difference. Most serious offenders are as indifferent to their own fate as they are to that of their victims.

Technological advance has a similarly disincentivising effect in other spheres. Instead of addressing the economic factors which leave many millions of people hungry in a world that produces more than enough food to go around, we invest huge sums in developing technologies like genetic modification, which, while providing short-term relief in certain circumstances, do nothing to tackle the underlying causes of food scarcity.

The DNA database proposal threatens civil liberties, is unlikely to prevent violent crime, and will further reduce our ambition in respect of tackling its underlying causes. The alternative, to make a commitment to tackle root causes, need have no implications for civil liberties; indeed ultimately, it's the only way to guarantee liberty from crime to every citizen.

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