The ACT is failing to make use of a critical weapon in the fight against crime. In October 2000, the ACT Parliament passed the Crimes (Forensic Procedures) Act which allows for the compulsory testing of prisoners who have been convicted of an offence carrying a penalty of two or more years in jail. In effect, this means every prisoner because virtually no-one goes to jail in the ACT for an offence with a maximum penalty of less than that.
The ACT Deputy Chief Police Officer Andy Hughes says police have been evaluating options to find the best way to collect the samples. He cited the fact that ACT prisoners go to NSW jails as a difficulty. In fact, it should be an asset. NSW tests all prisoners in its system. ACT prisoners have protested against the procedure without much success. Perhaps the ACT arms of the Australian Federal Police could politely ask the NSW corrections service for the samples, or for the results of the samples.
Victoria has made much of the new powers. Since testing began in 2000, Victorian authorities have linked 99 prisoners with 238 previously unsolved crimes, including violent rape and murder. Confronted with the DNA evidence most confessed.
The DAN testing of prisoners is an extremely effective weapon. Criminologists estimate that only a tiny proportion of the population commits nearly all the crime. Estimates vary around less than 5 per cent of the population committing more than 95 per cent of the crime. The likelihood a crime being committed by a serving or former prisoner is therefore very high. The argument that forcible DNA testing breaches civil rights is a poor one. The civil rights of the rest of the population whose bodies and property get invaded by crime are of grater importance. More importantly, DNA testing has an equally important role of proving innocence – and that is particularly important if police have an attitude that some lag prisoner should be lumbered with some outstanding cases to lift the clear-up rate.
The ACT also lags behind in using DNA testing in everyday crime solving. In the year to October 2001, ACT police carried out DNA tests on fewer than 100 suspects – 46 were linked to the crime they were suspected of, 52 to another crime and 13 were shown to be not linked to any crime and were excluded from investigations and suspicion. The civil liberties of those 13 people were well worth protecting by this technology.
It is important that the ACT make better use of DNA samples from crime scenes, suspects and prisoners.
It is also important that procedures for collecting and linking the sample to the scene and that all innocence explanations for the presence of a person’s DNA at the scene be fully considered. This powerful weapon should not be allowed to dazzle and stun juries, but it should better used as part of the armoury to establish guilt.