California Proposition 47 was passed by voters in 2014 and Proposition 57 in 2017 that essentially reclassified a number of serious felonies as misdemeanors and eliminated DNA collection from many in custody.
Governor Brown and others touted Props 47 and 57 as ways to reduce costs by finding ways to discharge about 50,000 inmates from custody. While many, including myself, oppose this and other measures to “reduce prison overcrowding,” the fact remains that those committing crime continue to be released among us to commit crime again.
I do not agree with Governor Brown’s logic that it is better to let convicts out of custody to save us money than it is to keep us safe.
The reasons we have prisons are ostensibly 1) to offer a form of punishment that prevents a person from continued criminal misconduct, 2) to protect the public from potential new criminal acts, and 3) to support the social narrative that criminal behavior has negative consequences.
Of course, the real solution is inducing an inmate to transition to a new mindset of non-criminal conduct while in custody- an issue often discussed but to date not implemented in California.
I believe that the prison system fails to rehabilitate conduct because sentences are too short to create any lasting effect in changing criminal conduct. I have witnessed the prison systems in a number of other countries where long sentences equal profound changes in inmate thinking. Short and reduced sentences on the hand, I believe have the effect of minimizing the possibilities of personal transformation as a result of incarceration.
As a public reaction to Prop 47, Prop 57, and other similar efforts to decriminalize misconduct, a petition to classify some previously downgraded misdemeanors again as felonies has gathered enough signatures to be placed on the November 2018 ballot. This initiative also authorizes the gathering of DNA samples from inmates who have been accused of committing certain misdemeanors, as was true before Prop 47 and 57 were enacted.
This raises a great question- should we not collect DNA samples from everyone?
Lonnie Franklin Jr., the recently convicted serial killer in L.A. known as the Grim Sleeper, was identified through DNA. The quick story is that Franklin’s son was arrested and a DNA sample from the son showed a one generation relationship existed with the then unidentified Grim Sleeper. This familial link was used to eventually connect Lonnie Franklin with at least 10 murders. Public safety and the saving of lives were addressed with Franklin’s capture.
Hundreds of rapes, murders, and assaults each year are solved by DNA matches. So why aren’t we taking a DNA sample from everyone?
This is what I propose. If one uses any state or county service, i.e. attends public school, obtains a driver license, uses county services like a hospital or a welfare program, a DNA sample should be taken. Someone not wanting to take advantage of government services would have the choice to opt out of said DNA collection.
Having most Californians in the DNA database would accomplish a number of goals.
First, even if not everyone is willing to be part of the DNA database, enough participants would allow law enforcement to hone in on the perpetrator of a serious crime through relatives, just like they did with Franklin.
Second, if undocumented immigrants want anonymity, they can have it but not use government services.
Third, witnesses would be more likely to come forward voluntarily or identified in that DNA from witnesses at a crime scene are often located in addition to the DNA of perpetrators. More witnesses mean more appropriate judicial outcomes.
Fourth, victims of crime through DNA could be more quickly identified and located.
Fifth, based on the strength of adding this new evidence, criminal trials and investigations, and the expenses related to these, would be significantly reduced, saving taxpayer money.
And finally, justice would be better served. Many of the innocent, who simply plead no contest because they cannot afford a robust legal defense, would be cleared of any wrongdoing.
We already provide a picture and thumbprint at the DMV, a photo for school ID, and other forms of personal identification to government services. Why not our DNA?
A statewide, or even national DNA registry clearly supports the social narrative that criminal behavior has negative consequences and that we all stand together to hold accountable those who misconduct harms others.
Jonathan Kraut directs private investigations and private security firms, is a published author, Democratic Party activist, and SCV Interfaith Council member. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal or of other organizations.