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Editorial -- Gene genie

DNA data bank is a defensible advance in criminology

Thursday, October 15, 1998

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Federal Bureau of Investigation on Tuesday opened a national DNA database -- a move which is bound to set off alarm bells with civil libertarians. Although some sensitivity is warranted concerning the source and use of such samples, this development represents an important advance in the fight against crime.

DNA testing is a scientific breakthrough of recent vintage, but its extraordinary accuracy and reliability have overcome most skeptics.

Notwithstanding the outcome of the O.J. Simpson case, many criminals have been brought to justice through a tiny sample of genetic makeup left in the commission of a crime. Conversely, innocent people have been freed from prison by DNA evidence that proved beyond any reasonable doubt that they weren't guilty. DNA testing may be the greatest law-enforcement tool since the introduction of fingerprinting.

Actually, the lesson of fingerprinting provides an encouraging model for DNA testing, with which it is analogous. The FBI began keeping its national store of fingerprints in 1924, consolidating other libraries that had existed before. Finger-printing is now so routine in employment, military service and even banking that serious civil liberties concerns are rare. If there are abuses, they are few, while the advantages are many.

All 50 states have set up DNA databases, and the FBI unifies them with special software to provide the national database, which can be accessed only for law enforcement purposes. As a story in this week's New York Times described, all states require DNA samples from serious offenders, but differ on testing other categories of felons. Louisiana is the only one to permit the practice of taking samples from people who simply have been arrested.

Pennsylvania is not unusual. The commonwealth became the 37th state to authorize a DNA sample bank in 1995. As part of a special session on crime, the House and Senate unanimously passed the "DNA Detection of Sexual and Violent Offenders Act," which, as the name suggests, limits the testing to serious offenders. The testing is done mostly in state prisons and the samples are handled by a state police lab located in Greensburg.

The high-tech nature of DNA testing, and the fact that even a tiny bit of tissue can speak genetic volumes, understandably inspires a certain unease about the collection and dissemination of this data.

But if good sense prevails in the handling of these samples, as it has in the case of fingerprint records, the only ones who ought to be concerned are criminals.

Thanks to the FBI, committing crimes in the United States just became a riskier proposition.



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