Race, DNA, and Criminal Justice: Linking Public Opinion to Public Policy

Citation:

Hochschild JL, Sen M. Race, DNA, and Criminal Justice: Linking Public Opinion to Public Policy. 2011.

Abstract:

Genomics research will soon have a deep impact on many aspects of our lives, but its political implications and associations with social forces remain insufficiently understood. In this paper, we explore one piece of the rapidly developing arena: DNA biobanks for law enforcement purposes. All states store genetic information collected from serious offenders (and some from arrestees or certain categories of immigrants); these data are used to investigate both new and previously unsolved crimes. A few states also use DNA databases for partial or familial matches. Racial and ethnic minorities (particularly African Americans) are overrepresented in forensic DNA databanks, and analysts are engaged in an intense debate over whether that disproportionality is likely to harm or benefit minorities and the public at large.

We use a new survey of 4,300 Americans to investigate how the public understands and evaluates forensic DNA databanks. We examine respondents’ self-declared knowledge about biobanks, their evaluation of biobanks’ relative societal benefits and harms, and their willingness to contribute a DNA sample of their own. The survey items also ask about support for increased governmental funding and regulation, and about trust in government officials’ and private companies’ contribution to the public good in this arena. We find that members of minority groups -- especially blacks and to a lesser degree non-white Hispanics and Asian Americans -- are no less knowledgeable but hold more negative views about the use of genetic information for law enforcement purposes. Conservatives trust government officials in this arena but resist more funding for DNA biobanks; other demographic, contextual, or attitudinal variables are not strongly associated with views of biobanking. Whether current views remain stable and whether attitudes crystallize along ideological, demographic, or contextual lines -- and whether DNA databanks reinforce or help to offset racial biases in the criminal justice system -- all remain to be seen.