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Scotland Yard criminologist: DNA-print troublemaker kids

Give me the child, I'll lock-up the man

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A top UK police forensics official has suggested that DNA signatures be taken from children as young as five, if the kids in question were thought likely to become criminals in future.

Scotland Yard forensics and criminology chief Gary Pugh landed the police service in hot water at the weekend by suggesting that it's easy to identify a large proportion of future criminals while they are still children.

"In the long-term the benefits of targeting younger people are extremely large," Pugh told the Observer.

"You could argue the younger the better. Criminologists say some people will grow out of crime; others won't... The number of unsolved crimes says we are not sampling enough of the right people."

Rather than Minority Report style bald mutant precogs in a swimming pool linked to a groovy transparent vid interface and vom-truncheon-toting jetpack cops in hoverships, Pugh had more basic stuff in mind.

According to criminological theory, many villains escalate up to a full-fledged career of infamy following minor offences as children and teenagers. If you DNA-print kids with a history of vandalism or anti-social behaviour, goes the thinking, you're much more likely to get an early hit from crime-scene DNA in future robberies or more serious offences - and so more likely to solve cases and nab jail offenders early on, rather than having to wait until they get DNA-printed in the normal course of events.

According to Pugh, there should be an open debate as to where the line is drawn. Simply printing-up everyone - which has been advocated by senior beak Lord Justice Sedley, on the grounds that it's the only fair way - would be too expensive, seemingly.

So, given that the DNA database is a very useful tool which has helped solve a lot of horrible crimes, the debate as Pugh sees it is about who should be sampled. Putting in a knife-toting hoodie-wearing teenage mugger, joyrider/car-arsonist or sexual-assaulter might not upset too many - but printing up a cheeky chirpy whippersnapper of seven for scrumping apples would obviously be seen as going too far.

There will also be those who'd suggest other strategies for dealing with kids who seem headed for a life of crime - other than getting ready to lock them up as quickly and efficiently as possible as soon as they're old enough, that is. Such plans would probably cost even more than expanding the DNA database to take us all, however.

In any case, this debate is already heavily polarised - in a similar way to the one around drugs/legalisation - with little common ground to be found. Pugh seems unlikely to get his calm and open debate. He has already been muzzled by his bosses at Scotland Yard and ACPO, and politicians have weighed in.

"This is the sort of Orwellian idea that should stay firmly in science fiction novels," said Lib Dem home-affairs spokesman Chris Huhne, mixing up his biting dystopian commentary with his sci-fi just a tad, we suggest.

"Innocent people should not have their DNA stored, and that applies in spades to children who could be stigmatised by having their DNA taken.

"Britain already has the largest DNA database in the democratic world and it is growing like topsy without proper political sanction.

"The only DNA samples that should be retained are of people who have been convicted or where DNA is found at the scene of a crime where there is a on-going investigation."

That's already the case in Scotland, but elsewhere in the UK samples are taken from anyone charged with almost any offence and usually retained for life.

Public attitudes on biometric databases vary significantly by nation and technology. In the USA, for instance, a significant proportion of the male population is in the FBI fingerprint database owing to being printed during military service. However, Americans are thus far much less happy to be DNA profiled and the US database is very small compared to the UK one. ®

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