Academic journal article Social Justice

Coopting the Antiviolence Movement Why Expanding DNA Surveillance Won't Make Us Safer

Academic journal article Social Justice

Coopting the Antiviolence Movement Why Expanding DNA Surveillance Won't Make Us Safer

Article excerpt

Expanding the number of individuals with DNA "profiles" stored in nationwide criminal databanks appears to be a promising criminal justice reform, particularly for resolving crimes of sexual violence .Bills like the Violence Against Women Act provide for DN Adatabank expansion, and many anti-rape organizations support this development. Yet, as millions of dollars are allocated for these purposes, thousands of rape kits--DNA evidence submitted by rape survivors--remain untested. DNA databanks have serious, harmful consequences for individual privacy and dignity, and they distract attention and resources from the larger social forces that engender sexual violence. Instead, the author advocates for community-based alternatives that are survivor-centered and focused on humanizing and healing all parties involved.

Keywords: rape, rape kits, interpersonal violence, police, community alternatives


OVER THE PAST 30 YEARS, LAW ENFORCEMENT HAS SIGNIFICANTLY EXPANDED its use of DNA technology to solve crimes and convict defendants. Considered the "forensic gold standard," DNA evidence is often viewed as conclusive--and in some cases sufficient--evidence of guilt (Felch and Dolan 2008). DNA is also closely related to solving and prosecuting sexual offenses, because the physical nature of these crimes makes it especially likely that the perpetrator's genetic material will be found at the scene. (1) Indeed, many of the early databanks were aimed solely at sex offenders. (2)

Because law enforcement has historically neglected the prosecution of rape and other sexual assaults (MacKinnon 2000), some anti-rape advocates believe that law enforcement's increased use of DNA indicates greater attention to the problem of sexual violence. (3) As a result, these advocates have pushed for expanded DNA databanks and testing of justice-involved individuals. As this article explains, however, increased DNA testing of justice-involved persons is not an effective means to prevent sexual violence--a form of violence deeply rooted in our society's history and culture.

First, most sexual violence occurs outside the criminal justice system and most survivors do not report the crime to law enforcement. If they do report, the police choose not to investigate. Moreover, if the case makes it out of the police station, prosecutors can elect not to prosecute. Second, even in cases where the assailant is unknown, the crime is reported, and law enforcement investigates, the use of DNA databanks to track sexual offenses is hampered by law enforcement's widespread failure to test DNA evidence submitted by rape victims (rape kits). Third, DNA databanks cost millions of dollars, which diverts critical resources away from violence prevention and instead assists law enforcement efforts to solve "stranger rapes" where DNA evidence found at the scene or on the victim can be matched to an offender sample in the databank. Yet most survivors know the identity of their attacker. Instead of expanding law enforcement resources for DNA databanks, more effective violence prevention and healing can occur through alternatives that focus on the survivor's needs and desires and prioritize violence prevention.

Law Enforcement's Use of DNA to Respond to Rape

In Maryland v. King (2013, 1958) the Supreme Court upheld routine collection of DNA from individuals arrested on charges of violent offenses, purportedly for its utility in solving sexual assault crimes like the one considered in the opinion. DNA technology is used to solve and prevent rapes in two contexts. First, "rape kits," or forensic evidence collected from the survivor, are tested for DNA to identify potential attackers (e.g., DNA collected from the Salisbury victim in 2003). Second, individuals involved in the criminal justice system are tested for their DNA to create a "profile" that is uploaded into a DNA databank (e .g., DN A collected from her assailant in 2009). …

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