The Racial Composition of Forensic DNA Databases

63 Pages Posted: 9 Nov 2019 Last revised: 16 Jan 2020

See all articles by Erin Murphy

Erin Murphy

New York University School of Law

Jun Tong

New York University School of Law

Date Written: August 8, 2019


Forensic DNA databases have received an inordinate amount of academic and judicial attention. From their inception, scholars, advocates, and judges have wrestled with the proper reach of DNA collection, retention, and search policies. Central to these debates are concerns about racial equity in forensic genetic practices. Yet when such questions arise, critics typically just assert that forensic DNA databases are not demographically representative. Such assertions are expressed in vague or conclusory terms, without a citation to actual data or even to concrete estimates about the actual composition of DNA databases.

This Article endeavors to fill these gaps in the literature by providing demographic information about the composition of forensic DNA databases. We draw upon two sources. First, we obtained data from states in response to our requests under freedom of information laws. Second, we devised an original estimate based on public information about each state’s DNA collection policies and the demographic data that matches those policies. In other words, we reverse-engineered the national DNA database.

We then use our data on the actual and estimated racial composition of DNA databases to identify and illuminate four questions fundamental to forensic DNA policy. First, the data center racial justice concerns as critical to debates about the proper scope of collection and search policies, as well as the impact of forensic DNA database practices more generally. Second, the data cast light on the significance, determinacy, and stability of race and ethnicity as meaningful biological and social categories. Third, the data provide insight into the advantages and disadvantages of choosing among architectural approaches when collecting, storing, and searching sensitive data such as genetic profiles. And finally, the data prompt questions about genetic privacy more generally, including how to weigh the significance of criminal justice practices in an increasingly genetically transparent society.

Keywords: DNA, Database, Forensic DNA, DNA Databases, Forensic Evidence, Racial Justice, Race

JEL Classification: K14

Suggested Citation

Murphy, Erin Elizabeth and Tong, Jun, The Racial Composition of Forensic DNA Databases (August 8, 2019). California Law Review, Vol. 108, Forthcoming , NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 19-54, Available at SSRN: or

Erin Elizabeth Murphy (Contact Author)

New York University School of Law ( email )

40 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012
United States
212-998-6672 (Phone)

Jun Tong

New York University School of Law ( email )

40 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012-1099
United States

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