Ears were pricked to Michael Bloomberg's State of the City speech last night for any hint that the New York City mayor might throw his hat into the Presidential primary ring. No change in the tea leaves yet, but Bloomberg did say something that ought to set off alarms for anyone who values their privacy: The Mayor announced that he will push the legislature in Albany to expand the state's criminal DNA databank to include people who have not been convicted of any crime, but merely arrested.
Most of us are familiar with the utility of DNA testing to catch criminals, as seen repeatedly on CSI, and to exonerate the innocent. But a plan like Bloomberg's not only turns the bedrock legal principle of "innocent until proven guilty" on its head, it's unlikely to make our streets any safer.
Readers of this blog don't need to be convinced of the sensitivity of genetic information - the privacy of our genetic code is critical lest that information fall into the hands of insurance companies who might deny coverage, or employers who might deny a job based on some real or perceived genetic disease.
But the as-yet-untold story of DNA databanks is that when you expand them beyond their utility, they not only stop working well to solve crimes, they often begin to work against that purpose. This is because massive expansions of these databanks tend to increase already existing backlogs, which overwhelm crime labs and lead to shoddy analysis. Backlogs, negligence, and outright malicious tampering at the Houston Crime Lab led to hundreds of cases being called into question based on their reliance on tainted evidence. As a result, one innocent man, Josiah Sutton, served four years in prison for a rape he did not commit.
We ought to be using DNA evidence to catch perpetrators of rape and murder - the types of crimes where DNA evidence is most often found. Under Bloomberg's plan, the NYPD could take (and permanently store) DNA from anyone trespassing, carrying an open container or possessing a dime bag of pot. Reefer Madness notwithstanding, marijuana possession has never been shown to be a precursor to rape and murder.
Speaking of marijuana, CUNY Sociologist Harry Levine has done a fascinating study on who would actually end up in Bloomberg's DNA databank. Levine studied arrest rates for marijuana possession in New York City from 1997 to 2006. What he found during that time was that although numerous studies have shown that whites tend to smoke marijuana at about twice the rate of minorities, blacks and Latinos are arrested for possession in New York City more than eight times as often as whites. In addition, the sheer number of these arrests is stunning: out of the 360,000 people arrested or jailed in that 9-year period, 86 percent of them belonged to minority groups.
So what is Mayor Bloomberg really proposing here? DNA databanks at best provide diminishing returns to crime solving, so what would in effect be created is a tool for genetic surveillance - one that targets primarily minority communities who will be permanent suspects for any and all future crimes. That's not something Americans want our leaders, be they mayors or presidents, pursuing, especially if it won't make us safer.