Advocates Push for Reforms to DNA Database Collection

The FBI has a database of over 10 million DNA profiles, and it's growing larger by the day. But many people of color arrested for non-violent crimes are caught up in the web of DNA profiling.

By Tammy Johnson Nov 28, 2011

Across the country, thousands of immigrant families mourn the absence of loved ones captured in immigration raids. Many are deported, but most are subjected to many months, even years in detention centers. And there is another injustice being visited upon these communities. According to a recent report released by Generations Ahead, immigration officials are also authorized to take DNA samples of immigrant detainees at the time of arrest. Regardless of their citizenship status, once their DNA sample is in the system, it’s there indefinitely. DNA collection and retention represents a continuation of the federal trend to treat immigrants as criminals.

In addition to highlighting some of the issues that warrant a robust public debate, the report makes some key recommendations: limiting the use of DNA databases to cases that involve violent crimes, expunging DNA samples and profiles of innocent individuals, and implementing clear and transparent oversight of all DNA labs. The recommendation to focus DNA databases only on violent crimes is especially critical for undocumented immigrants, the vast majority of whom are not committing any crimes whatsoever.

The report, "Forensic DNA Database Expansion: Growing Racial Inequities, Eroding Civil Liberties and Diminishing Returns", outlines the impact of over a decade of DNA collection in 50 states and by the federal government, and its impact on communities of color. The report notes that as of September 2011, the FBI has a database of 10 million profiles. They expect another 1.2 million by 2012 and are currently managing a backlog of 600,000.

"These databases have been a valuable tool in identifying individuals convicted of violent offenses," says Generations Ahead’s Managing Director, Marina Ortega. "However, violations of immigration laws are civil, not criminal offenses, and yet we have been arresting, detaining, and deporting individuals in violation of these civil offenses, exposing them to the same structural inequities present in our criminal justice system."

The report goes on to state:

The collection of DNA from detained immigrants–authorized by the DNA Fingerprint Act of 2005 –is perhaps even more noteworthy given the fact that these violations do not constitute criminal offenses at all. The transgressions–lacking legal documentation for U.S. residency–are adjudicated in civil rather than criminal courts. This Act has serious implications for Latinos, who represent about 16 percent of the population and who last year committed 40 percent of federal offenses–nearly half of them immigration-related. Requiring individuals who are detained, even briefly, to submit their DNA will have a chilling effect on communities throughout the country.

"The presumption of innocence is rapidly being transformed into a presumption of future guilt," says Marina. In addition, newer techniques such as familial searching now include innocent family members of individuals with DNA profiles stored in a database. As the databases grow, these lines will be continually blurred for more and more categories of people, especially vulnerable populations.

There is little doubt that DNA plays an important role in the criminal justice system. Many of us are familiar with the heart-wrenching stories of people exonerated through DNA evidence after serving years in prison for crimes they did not commit, or the survivors of sexual assault whose assailants were apprehended thanks to DNA matches. These examples are powerful reminders of the utility of DNA, but they only tell part of the story of DNA in the criminal justice system.

For more about this topic, go to here. You can view the report and RSVP for the December 7th webinar on the topic.

Tammy Johnson is a racial justice activist, dancer, and writer living in Oakland, California. She spent over a decade working for Colorlines and our publisher, the Applied Research Center, leading racial justice trainings.