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The dangers of growing DNA databases

The practice of retaining genetic samples from people arrested for a crime but not convicted is growing in the U.S. It has serious human rights implications.

April 09, 2010|By Osagie K. Obasogie

But the question is not only how many people this policy shift might affect, but which ones? Policies that expand DNA databases are almost sure to exacerbate racial bias in the criminal justice system. The grossly disproportionate number of imprisoned blacks and Latinos reflects, in part, the disproportionate policing of their communities.

Although blacks make up only about 13% of the population, estimates show that they constitute at least 40% of the federal DNA database. Including arrestees who are not convicted will only widen such disparities.

The U.S. criminal justice system is notorious for its long list of practices that others in the developed world consider to be blatant human rights violations. Our zealous pursuit of criminals must be balanced with respecting human rights.

The president's support for expanding DNA databases to include arrestees who are not convicted and are later released may not only run counter to a growing international consensus concerning human rights, but also against America's long-standing commitment that people are innocent until proven guilty. This includes the basic idea that government shouldn't constantly look over innocent people's shoulders. Or in this case, their genes.

Osagie K. Obasogie is an associate professor of law at UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, a visiting scholar at UC San Francisco and a senior fellow at the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley.

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