The DNA database is back in the news again and the question of civil liberties looms large in my mind.
Whilst working on violence against women and girls policy at the Home Office I was privileged to be invited to visit a Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC). A SARC is somewhere that victims of sexual assault can receive medical care and counseling, and have a forensic examination and report the crime to the police if they wish. I have to say now that if I, or a friend, was a victim of sexual assault, this would be my first port of call. I spoke to medical staff and police alike who were committed to providing a totally professional service that puts the victim first.
Before this visit I never found myself conflicted about civil liberties and I knew on which side of the debate I stood on issues such as the Human Rights Act, terrorism laws as well as the DNA database. But at the SARC we were told of a number of victims whose attackers had been caught because their DNA was on the database. Many had not been convicted, or even arrested for a sexual offense, and in some cases the DNA sample had been taken years earlier. Whilst I knew intellectually that cases like these existed, hearing them in that setting brought the reality of them home.
Rape victims have spoken out against changes, but their position is not well reported and rarely gets included in arguments about the database. One might ask why sexual assault should be singled out from other crimes. But the low level of reporting and the pitiful number of convictions, coupled with the uniquely intimate and distressing nature of the crime, means it must be given particular consideration in the debate.
Clearly there is a balance to be struck between the rights of victims of sexual assault and the rights of innocent individuals to privacy. What’s more, DNA is by no means a ‘magic bullet’ that can solve the current crisis of rape convictions. There are reports of mistakes, planted evidence and miscarriages of justice. On top of this is the question of who gets access and what they do with it; recent reports of lost laptops and CDs containing reams of personal data are not reassuring.
Even so, I’m glad the government decided against scrapping the database entirely. I believe that there is a role for a DNA database if it can help catch the perpetrators of rape and other pernicious crimes. I’ll never forget staff at the SARC showing me the cupboard where all of their files were kept; shelves and shelves of neatly stacked cardboard folders that each represented personal suffering and sorrow.