DNA and Criminal Justice: Public Opinion on a New Policy
Posted: 26 Aug 2011 Last revised: 4 Feb 2015
Date Written: March 30, 2012
Genomics research will soon affect many aspects of our lives, but its political associations and implications are only beginning to develop. This paper explores one such aspect: biobanks for law enforcement purposes. All states collect genetic information from serious offenders, and some from malfeasants, arrestees or immigrants subject to deportation. DNA evidence and biobanks are frequently used to aid in prosecution and conviction and sometimes to exonerate those falsely convicted. Some elites and advocacy groups find forensic biobanking deeply troubling, but the public endorses it and politicians usually promote it.
Scholars, on the other hand, know little about the political dynamics behind support or opposition. We use a new survey of 4,200 American adults and a new module on the General Social Survey to investigate how the public understands and evaluates forensic databanks. We examine respondents’ self-declared awareness of biobanks, evaluation of biobanks’ social benefits and harms, views on funding and regulation, and willingness to contribute a DNA sample. We anticipate a positive relationship with scientific literacy, Republicanism, and self-interest, and a negative relationship with being African American. Some, but not all, of these hypotheses are borne out. Blacks (and sometimes Latinos) resist forensic biobanks more than whites, although majorities of all groups endorse them. Those with more genetics knowledge are more supportive of this new technology. Republicans present a mixed picture: they trust law enforcement officials in this arena and resist federal regulation – but they also oppose increased public funding. Finally, self-interest defined as susceptibility to crime has no discernible relationship to views on legal biobanks.
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