Wisconsin doesn’t collect DNA from people arrested for felonies—only from those convicted.
Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen has asked the state Legislature to change that. In a submitted column, Van Hollen wrote: “With a simple swab inside of an individual’s cheek to obtain a DNA sample, Wisconsin can do more to bring justice to victims and protect our citizens from offenders whose crimes have gone unsolved.”
Van Hollen wants the number of offender profiles in the state’s DNA databank expanded, and for law enforcement to get additional samples by collecting DNA from people arrested for felonies and some misdemeanors, and from those convicted of any misdemeanor offense.
The change would bring Wisconsin in line with the federal government and 28 other states, Van Hollen wrote.
But one of the biggest hurdles for the law is the cost. The Associated Press reported the Justice Department says it needs $7.2 million to fund the first two years of a DNA collection program, and that Van Hollen has proposed paying for the initative by directing $9.8 million in criminal surcharges away from school anti-alcohol and bullying efforts, prison guard training, gang prevention efforts and public defenders’ training.
A new federal law could mean help for Wisconsin to clear that. The bill established $10 million in annual grants for states to start collecting DNA at arrest.
Not everyone thinks it’s a good idea.
Stacy Harbuagh, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, told the Journal-Sentinel in April they oppose the measure because people who are not convicted of crimes would be required to give their DNA, which includes health information.
“We could be filling our databank full of very private information from potentially innocent people,” she told the JS in April.
And last week, Christ Ahmuty, executive director of the ACLU’s Wisconsin chapter ,told the AP more names in the database doesn’t automatically mean more crimes will be solved.
“It’s like wasting federal money instead of state money,” he told the AP. “There’s better things they can do.”
For advocates, however, there are plenty of stories of victims whose attackers could have been identified much faster had DNA been collected at arrest for felonies or on conviction for misdemeanors.
The federal Katie’s Law, which provides the $10 million in state grants, is named for Katie Sepich, who was fatally attacked outside her New Mexico home in 2003. Her attacker’s skin and blood were found under her fingernails, and that DNA was found to match DNA on file for a man serving time for aggravated burglary. Her parents began working to expand the use of DNA in solving crimes.
In his column, J.B. Van Hollen made note of a Madison sexual assault from June 2000, where a woman was attacked in a parking garage by an unknown assailant. DNA recovered during the rape investigation was sent to the data bank, but no match was found until a decade later. Christopher R. Golden was convicted of a felony in 2010 and the DNA collected then matched the sample from the 2000 sexual assault.