March 14, 2012

Today Governor Cuomo announced that a deal with the legislature was near to enact a massive new expansion of New York’s forensic DNA database, a proposal that the Governor has made a top priority for his 2012 agenda.

 

Adding people who have  been convicted of  minor crimes, crimes for which DNA evidence isn’t even relevant, will impede, not improve public safety by overburdening law enforcement and causing delays in processing violent offenders. We’re not willing to trade added delays in processing murderers and rapists so that someone who went too fast on the NY thruway can be processed and added to the database.  The governor and bill supporters have not offered a single study, not a single statistical analysis, not a single legislative hearing or other credible evidence  to bolster the claims they’ve made.

 

Not only will the Governor’s expansion not make us safer, it will increase the chances that innocent people will be implicated in crimes. The truth is that DNA testing is not infallible.  The chance for false matches is far higher when authorities search through an ever increasing number of profiles than when they compare a single individual profile to a suspect.  And the chances of a coincidental match are far higher than the often misleading statistics offered by proponents.  Partial DNA matches and mixing of samples at crime scenes further increase the chances for a false match.  And any scientific enterprise that involves so much human decision making- from the taking of samples to the processing of samples to the matching of samples is prone to some error-from contamination, to mislabeling or misinterpretation of results.

 

Moreover, DNA databases raise special problems for racial minorities, due in part to racially biased police practices.  African-Americans, for example, are far more likely to end up in DNA databases than whites.  They make up an estimated 40% of the federal DNA database while only constituting 13% of the population.   These individuals are then subject to a higher chance that a false match may implicate them in crimes they did not commit.

 

In 2011 alone NY State received $18 million dollars in federal assistance to deal with its backlog of DNA evidence.  This new proposal contains no additional funding. The Governor’s massive database expansion includes no provisions to ensure that an already overburdened system has qualified, independent, vigorous and continuous oversight.

 

But perhaps even more shocking than the false reassurances of public safety in exchange for diminished civil rights protections is the possibly corrupt way this database expansion was formulated.  In today’s press conference to herald the database expansion, Governor Cuomo stood hand in hand with Lisa Hurst, a forensic DNA consultant with the firm Gordon Thomas Honeywell Governmental Affairs. What has not been reported is that Honeywell has a major contract with and is the primary marketing firm hired by Life Technologies whose division Applied Bio-systems is the largest provider of forensic DNA equipment and services in the world.  Gordon Thomas Honeywell has played a leading role in working with US state governments, the Department of Justice and many foreign governments to expand their DNA databases, often by offering misleading data, and then stepping in to profit directly from database expansions and increased testing.

We live in a system where companies lobby governments all the time for policies that will improve their bottom line, but never has that bottom line been so directly at the expense of civil rights and democratic principles.  Governor Cuomo needs to explain his relationship with Gordon Thomas Honeywell including what financial benefits the company stands to receive as a result of the Governor’s DNA database expansion.  Furthermore the state must undertake an independent investigation of this nefarious operation to ensure that public interest has not been compromised for profit.

 

Jeremy Gruber

President

Council for Responsible Genetics

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