DNA collection program warrants a full debate

In 2008, lawmakers touted the crime-fighting benefits of a law that greatly expanded whose DNA would be collected after an arrest.

No longer would the state only collect DNA for certain felony convictions. Now anyone arrested for a felony crime -- even before conviction -- would have their DNA information added to the state databank.

But lawmakers failed to tie up one loose end; they didn't allocate money for the program, estimated then to cost about $4 million to set up and $3 million a year to operate. And three years later, they still haven't come up with the money for it.

It makes little sense to pass a law only to have it languish for lack of funding. That is unless you passed the law more to win political points than to actually accomplish something. Lawmakers who pushed the law in 2008 lamented its lack of funding in a recent (Charleston) Post and Courier story.

Senate President Glenn McConnell told the newspaper it was disheartening to see the law sidelined when it has the potential to help solve crimes.

"It's only going to help the innocent and it's only going to hurt the guilty," he said. "It will certainly help put the finger on criminals who have injured or harmed victims."

But lawmakers have had the power to cure this problem if they wanted to spend the money. They said they'll try in the upcoming legislative session, but also warned it would be difficult to pay for a new program in tight budget times.

Because it's been so long since the original bill passed, we hope to see a full debate on the merits of the program, as well as its funding.

Former Gov. Mark Sanford vetoed the law in 2008 and made strong arguments against it. Sanford said the government shouldn't have access to genetic information without a conviction, warrant or court order. In each of those instances, a person is afforded due process before such an invasion of privacy.

The law also states that samples would be destroyed if the charges are dismissed, the person is found innocent or the conviction is overturned. If that's the case, why collect it before a conviction? Why go to the trouble of collecting and storing the information only to have to expunge it later. In his veto message, Sanford pointed out that in 2006, only 40 percent of felony arrests led to convictions.

And if DNA is needed to make a case, it is certainly possible to seek that information through a warrant or court order.

The system of taking blood samples from people when they enter the corrections system has yielded results for law enforcement.

The State Law Enforcement Division compares information in its database and the FBI's national DNA databank, the Combined DNA Index System, which contains more than 1 million profiles. Last year, this enabled SLED to tie known offenders to some 611 crimes and establish links between 38 other incidents, Maj. Todd Hughey, director of SLED's Forensic Services lab, told the Post and Courier.

But those are people who have been convicted. If the system works as the 2008 law intends, the DNA of those not convicted would be expunged and only available for comparison between the time they are arrested and the record is cleared from the databank.

If lawmakers think that is worth the money involved, then they should pay for it. Otherwise, they should remove the law -- and its potential for abuse -- from the statutes.