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How NYC’s DNA Database Helps Not Only Solve Crime, but Prevent It

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How NYC’s DNA Database Helps Not Only Solve Crime, but Prevent It

New York Post December 17, 2020
Urban PolicyNYC
Policing & Public SafetyAll

In October, the City Council introduced a bill to limit the NYPD’s collection of DNA samples. Co-sponsors Diana Ayala and Donovan Richards seek to prevent gathering samples from minors without their knowledge or parental consent. But if anything, new research suggests we should not only be maintaining these DNA samples, but putting everyone who is in the database on notice.

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner houses the local DNA database for the five boroughs. It operates completely independent of police and of prosecutors’ offices. In the database, samples are associated solely with a serial number: There is no information about identity, race, age or health. The information can’t be used in paternity suits or insurance claims. It exists exclusively to establish or disprove guilt.

There is only one downside to being in the DNA database: If you commit a crime, you might get caught. The upsides to our city, however, may be even bigger than previously thought.

Newly published research from the Manhattan Institute reveals that DNA databases deter crime to a gobsmacking ­degree — especially among young people. Superstar economist Jennifer Doleac found that in the United States, adding people convicted of a violent felony offense to a DNA database reduced the likelihood of another conviction within five years by 17 percent. The effect on those convicted of property felonies was a smaller 6 per­cent decline, but that group also changed its behavior.

Doleac conducted analogous ­research in Denmark, where they have a similar system but richer data. In 2005, Denmark expanded its DNA database from including just a small subset of the most ­serious violent offenders to capturing everyone charged with the equivalent of a felony. For this group, being added to the DNA database reduced the likelihood of a new conviction by 42 percent in the first year. The effect persisted for at least three years.

These findings have direct implications for the council bill in Gotham, since the deterrent effect was found most pronounced among still-developing young people: ­Beyond deterring wrongdoing, database-inclusion ­improved life outcomes. The cohort that reduced its criminal behavior the most, ages 18 to 23, shifted from employment to education or training programs. Those from the older group, ages 24 to 30, shifted from unemployment into employment.

Doleac explains these life course corrections: “We don’t know whether being added to the DNA database caused this shift in ­behavior directly, as a conscious investment in noncriminal skills — or indirectly, as the result of no longer having work or schooling interrupted by arrests and incarcerations. Either way, the reduction in criminal behavior due to the deterrent effect of the DNA ­database appears to have put these individuals on a better track.”

Richards, now Queens borough president, cheered on by the Legal Aid Society, decried youth DNA collection as “genetic stop-and-frisk,” claiming it targets black and brown New Yorkers.

The truth is there is no faster, less biased way to the truth than DNA. Yes, the cops may take abandonment samples — collecting DNA off of soda bottles, for instance — from minors who are in custody following a crime. But this DNA isn’t random, and its collection and storage does only one thing: solve crime.

Like so many cries for drastic police reform, this bill’s advocates portray cops solely as victimizers and completely sidestep any consideration of preventing crime and seeing justice done for victims and the innocent.

And if, as Doleac’s research ­indicates, being admitted to the database actually steers youth ­toward more pro-social behavior and better lives, it is an advantage not just for the Big Apple but for entrants themselves. It decreases an individual’s likelihood of incarceration by discouraging criminal activity. And all with no more incursion into privacy than the mandatory fingerprinting of everyone from daycare employees to lawyers to cops and private investigators, me included.

Limiting the database simply risks solving fewer crimes — especially those committed against black New Yorkers, who make up the majority of the city’s homicide victims. It risks fewer exonerations for the wrongly accused. And now research suggests it risks more kids going down a path of crime and incarceration. Is this bill really in city kids’ best interest?

This piece originally appeared at the New York Post

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Hannah Meyers is director of the policing and public safety initiative at the Manhattan Institute.

Photo by Mark Zhu/iStock

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