DNA register ‘labels children as criminals’

Campaigners condemn laws that have put 1.5 million juvenilies on a database

Jamie Doward

Nearly 1.5 million 10 to 18-year-olds will have been entered on the national DNA database by this time next year, sparking claims that Britain’s youths are being criminalised and disproportionately ‘targeted’.

Campaign group Action on Rights for Children (Arch) says ‘no other country in Europe criminalises children at such a young age; no other country in the world has such an extensive database’.

Changes to the law have meant police can arrest anyone over the age of 10 on suspicion of committing a ‘recordable’ offence – which includes even minor crimes – and place their details on the register. But the government has been reluctant to discuss the issue of minors, confirming last year only that the profiles of some 358,012 children are currently on the register.

But campaign groups claim that this figure masks the bigger picture. A close analysis of the register by Arch and the pressure group Genewatch reveals the profiles of more than 1.1 million young people aged 10 to 18 have been added between 1995, when the database started, and April last year. Of these, they calculate 521,901 were aged 10 to 16 and 604,590 were between 16 and 18. When the youths become adults they are reclassified, resulting in a much lower number of minors being recorded.

‘The Home Office has shown repeated reluctance to release figures for children on the DNA database, presumably realising how shocked the public would be,’ said Terri Dowty, director of Arch.

Given current trends, with an average 170,000 youths being added to the database every year, the number of 10- to 18-year-olds who have been recorded on the register is expected to rise to almost 1.5 million by early 2009. Figures show a significant increase in the number of children being arrested compared with adults. According to Arch, the number of children between 10 and 17 arrested between 2002 and 2006 rose by 16.4 per cent. Over the same period the number of adults arrested went up by just 6.6 per cent.

Genewatch calculates some 100,000 children on the database are ‘innocent’ in that they have not even received a caution after being arrested. It also claims that between 1995 and 2007 only 189 minors have successfully applied to have their details taken off the register.

Stephen Bain, chair of the identity testing monitoring group at the government’s Human Genetics Commission, recently wrote to the Scottish government querying whether putting more young people on the database was useful. ‘We question the evidence supporting the suggestion that expanding the database would deter young people from committing minor offences in the first place and deter young offenders from moving on to more serious criminal activities,’ the letter states.

A spokeswoman for the National Policing Improvement Agency, which oversees the register,confirmed the profiles of around a million youths had been placed on the database so far – once replications and removals had been factored in – but added: ‘The retention of a person’s DNA profile… is not a criminal record. If a young person has DNA stored on the database but does not have a conviction, this database record will not show on criminal record checks for education or employment matters.’