Thursday, May 07, 2009

Ministers keep innocent on DNA database after all

Well I have to admit to underestimating Home Secretary Jacqui Smith's determination to find loopholes in the law on the retention of fingerprints and DNA of innocent people.
"The genetic profiles of hundreds of ­thousands of innocent people are to be kept on the national DNA database for up to 12 years in a decision critics claim is designed to sidestep a European human rights ruling that the "blanket" retention of suspects' data is unlawful.

The proposed new rules for the national DNA database to be put forward tomorrow by the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, include plans to keep the DNA profiles of innocent people who are arrested but not convicted of minor offences for six years.

The proposal would also apply to children from age 10 who are arrested but never successfully prosecuted."

I haven't seen the Home Office consultation paper - not due to be officially published until tomorrow - so this is still second hand from journalists who have seen it. Alan Travis at the Guardian reports:
"The package includes:

DNA samples

This is the physical sample of individual DNA material from a mouth swab, hair root or blood sample taken on arrest for a recordable offence. There are DNA ­samples held by the police on more than 4.5 million people as of 31 March. Ministers now propose to destroy samples for all existing and future cases for the unconvicted and convicted. Samples are to be retained for a maximum of six months to allow their profile to be loaded on to the database.

DNA profiles

Adults: serious sexual and violent offences For the most serious offences, the Home Office proposes the profiles of those arrested but not convicted should be kept for 12 years. For the convicted the period will be indefinite.

Adults: minor offences For less serious crimes the period for the unconvicted will be six years for a "recordable" offence, ie carrying a potential prison sentence and more serious than littering. Those convicted but also those given a caution, warning or reprimand will have their DNA retained indefinitely.

Legacy cases Existing 850,000 profiles on the database of innocent people who have been arrested but not convicted of any offence are to be re-examined by the police over the next two years to see if they have since been convicted of another crime. The Home Office says it has been ­established that 350,000 of these 850,000 DNA profiles are already linked to entries on the police national computer and so have a criminal record.

Dealing with the other 500,000 is the "biggest challenge and has the greatest resource implication", says the Home Office. It says that those who are linked to an entry on the police national computer will be kept for between six to 12 years ­depending on the seriousness of the offence. They say they can't estimate how many will be deleted.

Children The Home Office proposes a "one-strike" policy for those 11 to 18 with the profile of a child deleted at 18 if they have only one minor conviction.

Those convicted of a serious crime or two minor offences will have profiles retained for life. For those arrested but not convicted of minor offences the profile will be deleted after six years or when they are 18, whichever is earlier. For serious offences the 12-year rule will apply.

Exceptions Members of the public may request immediately removal of their DNA profile in cases of wrongful arrest, mistaken identity or where it turns out no crime has been committed."

All of these proposals are disproportionate to varying degrees in a country where a fundamental principle of law used to be that people were innocent until proved guilty. But the most objectionable has got to be the two strikes and you're out proposal for children. How many under 18s who do find themselves on the wrong end of a minor conviction only face those circumstances once? To stigmatise someone for life for indiscretions in childhood is just plain wrong. But this government's obsessive desperation to win over the average Daily Mail editor/reader, through passing multiple draconian laws superficially aimed at being tough on crime, seems to have left them unable to tell the difference between right and wrong.

I would just hope that there is a fast-track process and those with the means and determination to issue contempt of court proceedings before the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights. That's what these proposals, if Mr Travis's reporting of them is accurate, represent - contempt of the Court, contempt for the rule of law, contempt for the wrongly accused, contempt for the public and contempt for the historical tradition of the (albeit, in practice, imperfect) British justice system.

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