Value Of Dna Databases

Information sharing has always been crucial to successful law enforcement. Good information can solve crimes and ultimately save lives. DNA databases are just beginning to serve as valuable tools in aiding law enforcement investigations. Their effectiveness will grow as the size of the database gets larger. These databases can be used to locate suspects in violent crime cases that would otherwise never have been solved. Consider the sexual assault case described in Chapter 1. Without the Virginia DNA database, the rapist would probably have avoided detection.

A second important role that DNA databases, or databanks, can serve is to make associations between groups of unsolved cases. Criminals do not honor the same geographical boundaries that law enforcement personnel do. Crimes committed in Florida can be linked to ones committed in Virginia through an effective national DNA database.

But, DNA profile information must be in the database for it to be of value. Today tremendous sample backlogs exist in the United States - meaning that samples have been collected but are waiting analysis and entry into CODIS. Hundreds of thousands of samples await short tandem repeat (STR) typing. Efforts are being made to correct this sample backlog problem. In March 2003, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced an initiative to invest $1 billion over the next five years into forensic DNA programs to reduce the backlogs of casework and convicted offender samples. Hopefully in a few years, crime scene samples can be quickly analyzed and uploaded for a rapid and effective search against a comprehensive national DNA database due to this increased funding. The establishment of an effective DNA database requires time and full cooperation between forensic DNA laboratories, the law enforcement community, and government policy makers. The investment though is worth the effort to society and especially to victims of crime (D.N.A. Box 18.1).

The business case for using forensic DNA technology

National DNA databases, such as the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), have opened an entirely new avenue of identifying repeat offenders and assisting in 'no suspect' sexual assault investigations. With limited budgets and difficult decisions being made by lawmakers on how best to prioritize funds to aid society, a business analysis of the expected return on an investment in forensic DNA technology was presented at the 2004 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in Dallas, Texas. The numbers below come from this analysis by Ray Wickenheiser, Director of the Acadiana Criminalistics Laboratory (New Iberia, LA).

Within the United States, there are 366 460 sexual assaults reported each year (1992-2000 average). Since only 1/3 to 1/20 of sexual assaults are reported to the police, this number is fairly conservative. Approximately 34% of sexual assaults are committed by a stranger and would thus be termed 'no suspect'. These cases are normally unsolved without the power of DNA testing.

Studies have shown that 2/3 of offenders are repeat offenders. The average serial rapist commits eight sexual assaults prior to apprehension. Thus, seven of these offenses would be preventable if crime scene DNA testing was done on every case and the rapist's profile was in the DNA database to make the hit to the first sexual assault.

The cost of these crimes per offense committed is approximately $111 238 (adjusted from 1995 study to 2003 dollars). This figure includes the physical injury, hospitalization, lost time at work, counseling, and 'pain and suffering' incurred by the victim. The cost of investigating the crime and prosecuting and incarcerating the offender is not included in this number so it is probably pretty conservative.

There is approximately a 47.58% success rate of finding sperm and recovering a foreign DNA profile from sexual assault victims.

The Forensic Science Service in England has demonstrated that when a DNA database is sufficiently populated with criminal DNA profiles, a 42% hit rate can be obtained where a hit is made from a 'no suspect' case on a known offender present in the database. Working through these numbers gives the following cost to crime:

366 460 x 34% = 124 596 reported 'no suspect' sexual assaults

124 596 x 2/3 = 83 056 of 'no suspect' sexual assaults are committed by repeat offenders

83 056 x 7 = 581 392 future sexual assaults that are preventable

581 392 x 47.58% = 276 626 unnecessary victims of preventable sexual assaults

276 626 x 42% = 116 183 estimated sexual assaults could be solved with DNA database hits

116183 x $111 238 = $12.9 billion saved in terms of costs from prevented crimes

The cost to perform sexual assault testing in every case is approximately $366 million assuming a cost of $1000 per case and working all 366460 sexual assaults. Thus, the return on investment is over 3500%. For every dollar invested in forensic DNA testing, this analysis shows over $35 would be saved in terms of expense to victims and society.


Ray Wickenheiser presentation at February 2004 American Academy of Forensic Sciences meeting (Dallas, TX); Wickenheiser, R.A. (2004) 'The Business Case for Using Forensic DNA Technology to Solve and Prevent Crime'. Journal of Biolaw and Business, 7 (3), 34-50.


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