Assuming Future Guilt: US DNA Database Expansion

In the two decades that I’ve spent working on public education, youth, and racial justice issues, nothing was more disheartening to me than how local, state and federal laws treat youth of color like highway litter. School discipline zero-tolerance policies, law enforcement’s racial profiling, and the increased militarization of immigration policies create a destructive pattern. An alarming report released by Generations Ahead adds one more link to the devastating chain of systemic racism infecting our nation’s laws- DNA collection.

Imagine finding yourself handcuffed and being led to the back seat of a patrol car. It could happen. A broken brake light, several unpaid parking tickets, or a protest march against injustice could lead to being processed at the nearest county jail. Guilty or innocent, the DNA sample and profile that you leave behind may alter your life forever.

The report shows how communities of color, immigrants, and youth have become caught in a dragnet of local, state, and federal DNA database collection programs.

“The presumption of innocence is rapidly being transformed into a presumption of future guilt.” says report author Marina Ortega. Despite the growing public demand for a fair, accurate criminal justice system, these databases have made racial inequities in the criminal justice system worse.

The FBI has a database of 10 million profiles. In California, the number is 1.3 million and growing fast.

Consider the list of crimes under disorderly conduct that can be subject to felony offenses under aggravated circumstances:

  • public drunkenness,
  • inciting a riot,
  • disturbing the peace,
  • loitering in certain areas,
  • fighting,
  • obstructing traffic,
  • use of extremely obscene language,
  • unreasonable noise, etc.

This aggressive expansion includes the collection of DNA from individuals merely arrested for a felony offense, regardless of whether a trial is held or not, and whether a conviction is obtained. In some areas, law enforcement also targets innocent family members of people with DNA profiles. And as the databases grow, more people, especially those least able to defend their rights, are  trapped in the system.

But there is some hope. The report recommends limiting the use of DNA databases to cases that involve violent crimes, clearing the records of innocent people, and using fair and just policies would be a good start. Some states like California, Virginia, Texas, and New York have added additional enforcement safeguards such as making tampering with DNA samples a felony offense and having independent review panels.

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 usefulness of DNA profiles, but they only tell part of the story of DNA in the criminal justice system.

For more about this topic go to where you can view the report and rsvp for the December 7th webinar on the topic @ 10:00am PST, 1pm EST Featuring:  Marina Ortega, Managing Director, Generations Ahead  Michael Risher, ACLU Northern California Staff Attorney, Sujatha Jesudason, PhD, Executive Director, Generations Ahead (facilitator)

Tammy Johnson is a racial justice activist, dancer, and writer living in Oakland, California.