Authorities in Jamaica have put in operation a new DNA database, a move officials say could help tackle crime in the Caribbean island nation.
Speaking at a police conference on May 9, Jamaica’s National Security Minister Robert Montague said the country’s national DNA registry is now operational, reported the government-run Jamaica Information Service.
The database was established as part of the DNA Evidence Act passed by the country’s legislature in 2015, which permits authorities to take DNA samples from criminal suspects and convicts for storage in a database that will be used for forensic investigative purposes.
Montague said DNA sampling will help police forces to rely less on fingerprinting, and will allow for a more accurate identification of criminals.
“This strategy is working,” he said in comments reported by the Jamaica Information Service. “The DNA will now tie [criminals] to the crime scene and ensure there is no more escaping on a technicality. It will help us to catch criminals and bring them to justice. What we are saying to them now is that they can run, but they cannot hide.”
The act provides broad authority for the collection of DNA samples from individuals suspected or convicted of crimes.
“Reasonable force” may be used to collect “non-intimate samples” (i.e. a buccal swap that takes DNA from the mouth or cheek) from suspects and convicts.
If seeking an “intimate sample” (i.e. blood, urine, semen or pubic hair), authorities must obtain either the subject’s consent or a court order.
Detention officers are allowed to take non-intimate samples, but only registered medical professionals are permitted to take intimate samples.
If the subject is a “protected person” — that is, an individual incapable of understanding the effect and nature of the operation — a court order is required to obtain the DNA sample.
Even convicts who have already served their sentences can in some cases be forced to provide DNA samples.
The DNA samples will be sent to the designated “custodian” of the DNA registry, which will be managed by the Institute of Forensic Science and Legal Medicine, an independent investigative body under the National Security Ministry. The act also dictates that the National DNA Register may only be searched by a member of the institute.
InSight Crime Analysis
Jamaica’s DNA database could help authorities investigate and prosecute crimes, but several factors could limit the effectiveness of this new tool.
Given that this is Jamaica’s first experiment with DNA collection for law enforcement purposes, it remains unclear whether the country has enough properly trained personnel to collect, store and analyze the samples.
Furthermore, as legal authorities on the island have argued, the forceful collection of DNA samples could constitute a breach of citizens’ rights not to incriminate themselves.
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It is also important to note that Jamaica is not the first country in Latin America and the Caribbean to establish a DNA registry for law enforcement reasons. In 2007, Chile became the first nation in South America to pass DNA database legislation, followed by Uruguay in 2010 and Brazil in 2012. And while DNA evidence may have contributed to solving some crimes in these countries, most murders — especially in the case of Brazil — remain unsolved, suggesting that DNA databases are hardly a substitute for fixing structural problems affecting countries’ criminal justice systems.
Even in countries like the United States that rely heavily on DNA evidence in criminal prosecutions, experience suggests that these systems are far from flawless. In fact, studies have shown that the interpretation of DNA evidence is not free from contextual biases, which could affect authorities’ decision making and potentially lead to the incarceration of innocent people.
Nevertheless, the adoption of a DNA database is a sign that Jamaican authorities are seeking to modernize and improve their criminal justice system. While individual measures like the DNA registry are unlikely to have a major impact on their own, they could be important parts of a broader push for judicial reform.