In the State of New York, as in many other states, individuals convicted of homicide and sexual offenses are required to submit their DNA samples. There is now a move, led by Governor Paterson and supported by the state’s district attorneys, to require all individuals convicted of any felony or misdemeanor to submit their DNA samples. Does such a move make sense? What’s the point of taking DNA samples from shoplifters?
In order to appreciate why it might make sense to enact this change in criminal law, one needs to remember a phenomenon that is not often appreciated by the general public: generality of crime.
Two criminologists, Travis Hirschi and Michael R. Gottfredson (the same pair of criminologists who in 1983 discovered the age-crime curve) have conclusively demonstrated that criminals do not specialize. Individuals who commit one type of crime are more likely to commit other types of crime as well. In other words, shoplifters are more likely not only to commit petty larceny and check forgery but also to commit murder and rape.
This is because there is a constellation of personal characteristics – chief among which are low self-control and low intelligence – which inclines some individuals to commit crimes. Others who don’t possess such personal characteristics are less likely to commit crimes of all types. All behavior that is classified as crime in civilized societies are the results of certain failures: the inability to defer gratification, the unwillingness to play fair and to obey rules, and, according to the Hypothesis, the inability truly to comprehend how the criminal justice system operates. That’s why individuals who commit one type of crime are more likely to commit most other types of crime as well.
And it’s not just crimes. Criminals are more likely to take risks of all types. They are more likely to drive cars without wearing seatbelts or without insurance, ride motorcycles without wearing helmets, and to gamble (although many of these behaviors are crimes in many states).
So it’s not that taking DNA samples from convicted shoplifters is a good idea because it would prevent them from committing further acts of shoplifting or because it would be easier to catch them the next time they commit shoplifting. It is a good idea because convicted shoplifters are more likely to have committed (unresolved) murders and rapes or to do so in the future. The police would then be able to use the DNA sample collected from the shoplifter to identify him as the murderer or rapist.
Indeed, the statistics from the state of New York confirms Hirschi and Gottfredson’s view on the generality of crime. According to Sean Byrne, Acting Commissioner of the Criminal Justice Services, “Our statistics show that DNA in the databank as a result of one of the pettiest of petty crimes – petit larceny – has linked individuals statewide to 685 crimes, including 175 sexual assaults, 82 robberies and 36 homicides.” So men who steal $5 from a cash register are more likely to murder and rape. I can think of few better illustrations of the Hirschi and Gottfredson’s notion of the generality of crime.