The World's Laura Lynch reports on today's announcement by the British government that it will remove the genetic information of hundreds of thousands of innocent people from its national DNA crime database.
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MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. The British government is planning to scale back a police-collected DNA database. It's one of the biggest in the world. It contains the genetic information on felons, but also the DNA of close to 1 million innocent people â€“ too many, according to the European Court for Human Rights. So Britain's database is set to shrink, just as US authorities are moving to expand their DNA records. The World's Laura Lynch reports.
LAURA LYNCH: DNA, a powerful tool for investigators around the world, has been very, very popular with police in Britain. Time was, they only held onto DNA collected at crime scenes or from convicted criminals. But four years ago, police started collecting samples from anyone who was arrested for any offense. Even if they were later released or found not guilty, the DNA stayed in the database and it stayed there indefinitely. But now Britain is changing its practices, forced to by the courts. Still, it's less than a wholesale change. Police will still hold onto records of those who aren't convicted â€“ just not forever. Instead, it's planning to keep records of those charged with serious or violent crimes for a dozen years, the rest for 6 years. Home Office Minister Vernon Coker says it strikes the right balance.
VERNON COKER: Well, we certainly do need to do what we're doing because at the end of the day, by keeping the DNA of people who are arrested in the proportionate way that we're proposing, it will ensure as we've already seen that murderers who would escape justice, rapists who would escape justice, and serious and violent offenders who would escape justice are actually brought to justice.
LYNCH: But some say the government's solution is way out of proportion. There are about 850,000 innocent people who still have their DNA stored in the database. Opposition critic Chris Hune can't see any justification for keeping them there.
CHRIS HUNE: It's not effective. We know that the number of crimes being solved by DNA is falling, despite the increase in the number of people in the DNA database, and frankly, it offends the fundamental principle of British justice which is you're innocent until you're proven guilty.
LYNCH: Comedian and activist Mark Thomas was caught up in the DNA net when he was arrested for allegedly causing criminal damage after locking himself to a bus as part of an anti-war protest. He was acquitted, but had to fight to have his records removed from the database.
MARK THOMAS: I think that the issue here is they've created a sub-category of â€œinnocent-ishâ€. You're either innocent or you're guilty. But now they've created this sub-category of â€œsort of innocentâ€.
LYNCH: Even if the British government is staring down the courts and civil rights campaigners, it may find it has fans across the Atlantic. Just last month, the FBI changed its own DNA practices, adding to its database of genetic material from convicted criminals. It's now collecting DNA samples from people awaiting trial and detained immigrants. Sociology Professor Harry Levine, of City University of New York, has tracked policing trends. Levine says the UK leads the world when it comes to collecting and storing DNA. He believes US police forces will cheer Britain's determination to hang onto the data of the innocent, in spite of the court's ruling.
HARRY LEVINE: And so the impact of the UK will simply, I think, probably fortify if anything the efforts in the United States to increase the DNA collection of people who are just arrested.
LYNCH: But the US may yet claim the title of DNA database champions. Human rights groups in Britain say they're ready to challenge the government's new policy all over again, suggesting this isn't the end of debate about balancing the protection of the public with people's right to privacy. For The World, I'm Laura Lynch, in London.