Three-quarters of young black males now listed in database, report says

Police in Britain are regularly arresting people just to get their DNA samples into the country's massive biometric database, says a new report from a British government watchdog.

The report (PDF) from the Human Genetics Commission also says race is a factor in the arrests: While about eight percent of the British population is now listed on the DNA database, more than three-quarters of young black males, aged 18 to 35, are listed.

The Times of London reports that commission chairman Jonathan Montgomery said "there was some evidence that people were arrested to retain the DNA information even though they might not have been arrested in other circumstance[s]."

Britain's Labour Party government has been persistently attacked by civil rights groups for creating what has now become the world's largest DNA database. Under the rules of the database, police can keep DNA samples taken from arrested individuals on file forever. The person does not need to be charged or convicted of any crime for their DNA to remain on file.

The Guardian reports that the discrepancy in figures for minorities particularly troubled the commission:

The commission says the policy of routinely adding the DNA profiles of all those arrested has led to a highly disproportionate impact on different ethnic groups and the stigmatization of young black men, with the danger of their being seen as "an 'alien wedge' of criminality".

The report says there is very little concrete evidence on the importance of the DNA match in leading to a conviction and whether the suspect would have been identified by other means anyway.

It argues the database creates "pre-suspects" who are the first to be checked whenever a new crime is entered. This leads to a "no smoke without fire" culture that may be pervasive and hard to overcome.

According to the Times, the reported crime rate in Britain has been falling since 2004, but during that time arrests have been increasing at a rate of four to six percent per year. The Nature magazine blog reports that there are nearly six million people on Britain's DNA database, out of a total population of 62 million. Of those, 980,000 are estimated to have never been charged with a crime.

Last year, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Britain's DNA database was illegal because it kept innocent people's biometric records on file indefinitely. The British government has now proposed a change that would see innocent people's DNA taken off the database after six years.

But that doesn't go far enough for the country's opposition Conservative Party, which stands a good chance of forming government after the next election and says it wants to reduce the DNA database so that innocent people's DNA isn't kept on file at all, except in cases where the person was accused of violent or sexual offenses, reports the Nature magazine blog.