The Science and Justice Working Group Presents
A Conversation With: Troy Duster, Professor of Sociology & Director of Institute for the History of the Production of Knowledge, New York University and author of Backdoor to Eugenics (Routledge, 2003)
This month, the U.K. government proposed entering into DNA databases those youths deemed “at risk” for being criminals. How can and/or should “we” respond to such proposals? DNA databases have been celebrated for exonerating those unjustly charged with crimes, and for increasing the effectiveness of the criminal justice system, but at what cost? Are DNA databases creating new classes of persons (i.e., proto-criminals)? What are the justice issues raised by these forensic databases, and how do they relate to questions about prisons and justice? Such databases intersect with and alter issues of race, class and gender, issues that already strongly shape the criminal “justice system”; it is not yet clear what we need to know in order to address these topics in science, justice, and law.
Preceding this event, Prof. Duster will present a Sociology Dept. Colloquia: “DNA Fingerprinting and Civil Liberties: The CSI Effect and the Social and Political Implications of the Ever-Expanding DNA Databases" 3:00-4:30 p.m., Interdisciplinary Sciences Building 120
Sponsored by the Science and Justice Working Group and the Sociology Department
Troy Duster, “Criminal Justice/Genomic Justice?”
SJWG Rapporteur Report
23 April 2008
This event began with Reardon recapping Duster’s previous talk about the “CSI effect” and
DNA databanks. She mentioned that there was lots of attention on DNA data when she lived in
the UK last winter. The front page of the “Observer” recently had a headline, “ ‘Put Young
Children in DNA Database,’ Police Urge.” She asked, “How do we respond to this?” In the UK,
there is now biometric scanning/storing of biological information for migration and immigration
policies … In Troy’s earlier talk, he discussed the bias of the data base being 2/3 people of color,
so Jenny raises the question, “Can we put everyone in the database?”
Duster responded that it doesn’t change the operation of race. He noted that there would be a
false sense of universal justice. That is, having everybody is in the database assumes that since
we are all in, we are all equally subject to whatever it means to be in the database. Troy
discussed a case in the late 1980s that took place at University of Virginia. There were about a
dozen white fraternity boys, mostly from privileged backgrounds, who were raided by the police
for what turned out to be a cocaine raid. The community could not believe the police would
target college-attending white boys while real “criminals” are out on the street. Duster contends
that the apparatus of state will always turn primarily to vulnerable populations, which
consequently turn out to be predominantly black and Latino arrests. He stated that if there were
a universal database, such as in Portugal since 2004, there would continue to be arrests in
targeted areas. “Cold hits” are arrested on the streets and not on privileged college campuses.
The important thing to think about is what is the context and specifics of question. That is as
long as we have the apparatus of the state, it’s fool’s gold to have universal database.
Donna Haraway turned discussion toward the question of positive harm. She agreed that racial,
class distributions are fundamental issues, especially in regards to incarceration populations.
However, Donna questions whether the current database harms and whether the universal
database would do positive harm or will it be a money issue? Would it be a waste of distribution?
Haraway questions whether bias is structured in system and whether DNA bias is irrelevant to
system or is it doing harm? Duster responded that there are both exonerations and releasing of
innocent people—it’s always about individual cases.
Discussion turned towards privacy issues and whether it would be possible to protect 4th
Amendment rights through technical solutions. For instance, it may be possible to divide
individuals’ genetic sequences in order segment control of the sequences and allow for
exonerative use without disclosing the entirety of one’s sequence at any one time. Duster
responded that having technical solutions can be misleading and assumes an amount of expertise
and standardization that is typically not available on a large scale in law enforcement. Presently,
local, state, and national law enforcement agencies have widely divergent standards for taking,
storing, and using genetic data on suspects and convicts.
In response to this, discussion moved toward how to change policing practices. Duster responds
to this by suggesting that we change the reward structure within policing and challenge the
funding priorities that favor prisons over schooling. For instance, there are overtime policies in
police departments that encourage extra arrests and the end of shifts, incentivizing officers to
make excess arrests. Similarly, the state often chooses funding law enforcement and prisons over
universities because prisons create jobs for economically depressed communities and these jobs
cannot be outsourced.
Several participants raised questions about how much biometric and genetic infrastructure feeds
into police state and how much of it can actually be used positively to release innocent prisoners.
Duster responds that DNA at best is going to handle 1-2% of all crimes. Out prisons have 2
million people. Maybe 3000 exonerates for 300,000 who are not getting it. Beatriz da Costa
mentioned her experience of being an immigrant to the US and skepticism of being subject to
laser scanning and questioned something along the lines of where that information is going or
how might it be used against her. Duster responded that it seems to depend almost entirely on
who is in control of database. The answer is going to come in context of who is asking the
question and who has got the power.
SJWG member Jake Metcalf raised the question of whether we are giving DNA too much power
and notes there are all sorts of ways of reading the genome and more subtle ways of
understanding DNA. Some the concerns over genetic databases seems to rest on sketchy science
and an incomplete understanding of exactly what types of information get stored and how they
are used. As important as it is to resist the police state, it is important to avoid reifying an overly
powerful understating of DNA because then it is reinforced, when really it should be challenged
empirically and politically. Chelsea argued that the power of DNA in criminal justice will
largely be settled by legal precedent.
Mark Diekhans made the point that there is a privilege to identifying as/with the socio-economic
class that isn’t scared of being targeted as “criminal.” Duster mentioned that there is this pushing
together of “criminals” that started off as just sexual offenders, to then violent, then, felons, then
misdemeanor, to now arrestees – there’s a long continuum that we need to be aware of. Duster
highlights importance of possible, practical solutions. The ACLU says “arrestees, no; felons,
OK…” but at level of arrestees there is potential for mobilizing.
Rebecca [politics student?] then brought up the epistemological assumption of the body. That is,
without too much science how can the body tell the truth? From a political and ethical
standpoint, is the idea of the body property? What are underlying assumptions about the body?
Reardon added, who owns the self? Whose property is it? We’ve moved from ownership of land
to the self…is it white guilt? Who owns a body? Can anybody have property of the self?
Beatrice notes that classification is issue too. We don’t have to have a good science—looking at
donor profiles online; there are spaces for “homosexual tendencies” are being pathologized.
A question was raised whether there is fear of the “criminal gene”? Is there fear that we might
use new or find new categorization by developing a universal database. Duster responded that
crime is socially defined—even murder and rape. Historically, rape could not have happened to
black women by white men or slave owners. Haraway suggested that the politics of DNA storage
need to consider the politics of where samples are taken from? There is an issue of the quality of
science here and assurance regulating and limitations of a set of samples/data. We are not
looking at DNA but more a repeat of sequences. The politics of sampling raises the question of
“who is compared to what?” Donna reminds us that DNA is not one god but is a variety of
practices—the dog genome is useful to investigate—and thus we should not let DNA stand as a