Due to the unforeseen side-effects of a failed drug treatment programme, it is now possible to detect criminal activity before it takes place. This ‘pre-crime’ law enforcement is possible due to humans being capable of seeing murders before they are committed.
This fictional concept formed the basis of the Hollywood blockbuster Minority Report, and Gary Pugh, DNA spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), seems determined to cast himself in the role of Tom Cruise – the all-action hero hunting down criminals before they offend – making fantasy reality.
“If we have a primary means of identifying people before they offend, then in the long-term the benefits of targeting younger people are extremely large, you could argue the younger, the better,” said Pugh, as he called for potential child offenders to be put on the national DNA database.
The general concerns over a national database – risk of hacking, abuse by private companies, loss of data and over-reliance on possibly fallible DNA evidence – should be enough to turn people against the idea. Putting innocent children on the list just adds to the problems and further illustrates the growing trend for granting more power to the police at the expense of personal freedoms.
Allowing the police to place primary school children, who have not committed any crimes, on the database, will not only further erode civil liberties but also strengthen the decline in social mobility. Labelling a three-year-old as a potential criminal, and placing them on the database, will attach to them a stigma that will be impossible to remove.
Once on the list, children will be demonised by their peers, find themselves the first port of call for police officers and in later life struggle to find employment. This will not lead them away from a life of crime but will drive them to it.
The message Pugh is sending out, whether intended or not, is that all criminals are born evil. They are going to offend and we are powerless to stop them. We should, therefore, identify them and make it as easy as possible to catch them if they do offend. Tough on crime, tough on people who might commit a crime.
This, however, is not the case. The majority of offenders turn to crime following avoidable experiences, often in their early years, meaning that their criminality was not inevitable. By increasingly relying on a DNA database to catch criminals, we will have less of an incentive to tackle the root causes of crime: poverty, poor education and family breakdown. We may catch more criminals but crime would rise not fall.
Robin Alexander, Cambridge University Professor of Education, said this week that adults were responsible for a “projection onto children of adult fears and anxieties, not least about the kind of society and world which adults have created.” He concluded that this was partly to blame for a decline in children’s happiness. It is these fears that lead people to call for DNA to be collected, metal detectors to be installed at schools and longer sentences for young offenders.
The ACPO should be focusing their attentions on the best ways to stop the crimes taking place in the first place, instead of exacerbating the fears that Alexander identified.
‘Make Me a Criminal: Preventing youth crime’, a report by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), recommends that “we must continue to challenge and question the language used in media and by public figures (including politicians) to describe young people, and to refute the claim that young people are somehow distinct from mainstream society.”
The ACPO are proposing the opposite. By distinguishing between potential child offenders and potential adult offenders – who are not on the database – they are further alienating the most vulnerable children.
Placing children who have committed no crimes on a national database is a weakening of civil liberties and will not reduce levels of offending. Furthermore, it will demonise a group of children that are not predetermined criminals. It may be possible in science fiction to utilise pre-crime law enforcement, but it should remain a Hollywood fantasy.
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This post was written by Matt Genner