The recent release of our second instalment of Straight Talk by Scott Newark has received a great deal of media attention. It was published in full on iPolitics and across the Beacon News Network in cities across Alberta and British Columbia. An op-ed based on this topic by Newark was published in the Windsor Star on October 14 and in The Epoch Times on October 6.
On October 21st, Edmonton Sun columnist Mindelle Jacobs wrote about Newark’s proposal to modernize the DNA database saying, “A former Alberta prosecutor is pushing a brilliant tough-on-crime proposal that only criminals and their bleeding heart sympathizers would oppose: taking DNA samples from suspects upon arrest.”
Newark also appeared on the Dave Rutherford radio show in Alberta and on CBC radio’s Blue Sky with Garth Materie to discuss his recommendations.
The full op-ed is copied below:
Why Canada Needs a Modernized DNA Database System
By Scott Newark
With the Government’s criminal justice reform agenda on the horizon, an opportunity exists to modernize laws regarding DNA forensic evidence. Canada has had laws specific to the gathering of DNA evidence since the mid-90s, but we’ve been operating with one hand tied behind our back to the detriment of crime solving and prevention. It’s time to fix that.
DNA forensic analysis improves the ability of police and courts to connect persons with crime scenes by matching known samples within an authorized DNA Database with trace evidence. Just as important, DNA also increases the forensic ability to exclude the innocent and prevent wrongful conviction. Trace evidence from many unsolved crimes exists, but our antiquated DNA laws have produced a system that is grossly underperforming.
In Canada, when police charge someone with an indictable offence they are authorized to take fingerprints but not a DNA sample. Only when someone is convicted of a crime can a DNA sample be taken, and even then, because of current laws, the sample is frequently not collected and recorded. According to one analysis, of those convicted of serious offences fewer than 50 percent actually had their DNA collected. For secondary offences, only 20 percent of potential samples were collected.
Homicide and sex crimes, in particular, yield trace evidence. DNA analysis of such evidence has been available since the 1980s but there was no legal authorization to secure a DNA sample from someone considered a suspect. In the early 1990s, Parliament created “DNA search warrants” —useful for investigations— but did not create a database similar to what exists for fingerprints. The DNA database created later needlessly ignored the fingerprint model and made DNA sample taking discretionary and only after conviction.
This is critical because a disproportionately small number of offenders commit a large volume of crime, including violent and sexual crime. Not all of these crimes are immediately solved, and the defects of discretionary samples are not theoretical.
Consider someone in Toronto charged with break and enter and also, unknown to police, responsible for an unsolved rape where his DNA evidence remained at the scene. There is an extraordinarily high chance that he is going to make bail and flee because he knows that if he returns and gets convicted the court may order a DNA sample that will match evidence at the rape scene.
It gets worse. When the person charged with break and enter doesn’t show up for court, a warrant is issued for his arrest. If he gets picked up later in Vancouver, the police will call Toronto and ask if they want the offender returned. Because they don’t have DNA evidence linking him to other more serious crimes, it’s a virtual certainty they will decline on the grounds that it’s only a break and enter. This situation is so prevalent that BC has recently enacted a “Con Air” program to fly fugitives back to face charges.
Sooner or later the criminal from Toronto will get picked up for committing a crime in BC. He’ll be denied bail, get convicted, and be forced to provide a DNA sample. That sample will then be matched to trace evidence, and we’ll all be reading about a “cold case” solved by DNA evidence. As desirable as that is, new crimes with potentially horrific consequences may have been committed because we didn’t take a DNA sample at time of the charge in Toronto, the way we take fingerprints.
A modern DNA database system will help solve and prevent crime. We already have the Identification of Criminals Act model as well as the basic DNA authorizations in the Criminal Code. The Harper Government recently took the first step by making samples mandatory on the most serious offences. It’s time to complete the job with precise legislation covering three critical issues.
First, take DNA samples and conduct analysis following arrest and charge on defined offences. Second, the DNA analysis must be mandatory, as with fingerprinting. Third, the DNA analysis must apply to people currently in custody or still under sentence on defined offences. These strategic changes will help identify and convict violent criminals, protect the innocent, and enhance public safety for all Canadians.
Scott Newark is a former Crown Prosecutor and author of several studies on crime, including the recent Why Canadian crime statistics don’t add up, and the first instalment of Straight Talk on parole reform, both released by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.