Campus & Community

Fighting crime through science

5 min read

Reno lauds DNA technology at KSG talk

Attorney General Janet Reno LLB ’63: “We must not let another day go by if we have people sitting in jail whose innocence can be proven by DNA testing.” The attorney general discussed the lessons learned from the National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence during a forum at the Kennedy School. (Staff photo by Kris Snibbe)

In what was most likely her final appearance at Harvard while serving as the nation’s top law enforcement officer, Attorney General Janet Reno LLB ’63 last week called upon the nation’s top universities to play a larger role in the development and understanding of new crime-fighting technologies.

Reno delivered the keynote address before a near-capacity crowd at ARCO Forum during a three-day conference titled “DNA and the Criminal Justice System” co-sponsored by the Center for Business and Government at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG).

“Like the introduction of fingerprints, DNA has forever changed the landscape of the criminal justice system,” she said. “Our challenge … is how to utilize these new tools … [and] to make sure that human beings master the technology rather than letting the technology master us.”

Reno’s speech, while cautious in its underlying tone, was explicit in its core message. The attorney general acknowledged the “complexity” of DNA technology but placed greater emphasis on its potential as a tool for justice.

“We must not let another day go by if we have people sitting in jail whose innocence can be proven by DNA testing,” she told the audience at ARCO Forum. “We cannot let another day go by if we have not apprehended an offender who is out there who would be known if we would be able to make a [DNA] match that would save a victim from tragedy.”

It was almost 50 years ago that scientist James D. Watson, who later taught at Harvard, and his colleague, Francis Crick, worked out the structure of DNA and constructed the double helix model to demonstrate it. That breakthrough launched a scientific revolution in biotechnology, genetic research, and forensic medicine that continues today.

Using DNA samples as identification tools is a relatively new concept in law enforcement, but one that has been gaining momentum in recent years. According to Barry Brown, program manager for the Combined DNA Index Systems (CODIS) and the National DNA Index System (NDIS), operated through the Federal Bureau of Investigation, there are now more than 400,000 offender profiles and 19,000 forensic profiles stored on DNA databases in 32 states.

“Our first challenge has been met,” Brown stated during a panel at the conference last Monday. “The next challenge is to make greater use of the DNA information.”

How to make best use of the technology without violating citizens’ right to privacy is a delicate balancing act, according to Reno. “It’s an extraordinary challenge,” she said. “And I think that the university systems of this country have come to recognize that, and [must also] recognize that lawyers won’t solve the problems by themselves. Public policy specialists won’t solve their problems by themselves, and the biotechnicians won’t solve their problems by themselves.

“The time has come for the great universities of this nation to start giving regular course work in subject matters that are affected by the law and that affect the law,” she continued.

Reno made reference to a report compiled by the National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence, “The Future of Forensic DNA Testing,” which had been officially released just hours earlier. Among its conclusions, the report calls for expanded reliance on DNA databases to identify or clear suspects in major crimes.

“What [the commission] found and brought to light was that while these DNA databases are incredibly powerful investigative tools, their potential remains largely unfulfilled,” Reno said. “The commission identified that throughout the country our state and local laboratories have significant backlogs. … There are in excess of 1 million convicted offenders whose DNA profiles should be in the database, but are not. We must invest in the people, the training, and the technology necessary to reduce these backlogs as quickly as possible.”

But Reno also warned that thoughtful criticism must be weighed and discussed. “Failure to account for these concerns will risk a reactionary response to the technology complications, lack of support from the public, and, ultimately, a lack of support from those responsible for the funding,” she said. “It is too wonderful a tool to mess up in this way.”

The attorney general also used the occasion to urge the National Institute of Justice to hold annual conferences on DNA technology in order to “pull together experts to address the particular issues in a thoughtful way so that we make sure our research, our discussions, and our dialogue are focused on how we ensure accuracy, relevancy, privacy, and public trust.”

After all, Reno told the audience, only if the public believes in the credibility and accuracy of the technology will DNA testing and profiling truly live up to its potential as an indispensable weapon for law enforcement in this country and around the world.