in Human rights / Surveillance state

National DNA database and psychiatric patients

There’s a letter by me and Dr Lisa Conlan published yesterday in The Psychiatrist’s eLetters:

National DNA database and psychiatric patients

The advent of DNA analysis as a powerful tool for crime detection has led to the creation of England and Wales’s National DNA Database (NDNAD). This is one of the world’s largest databases of DNA information, storing profiles of nearly five million individuals (1). We write to raise a concern about the potential impact of this database on people with mental disorders.

The NDNAD has long been the subject of scrutiny and criticism with regards to how DNA profiles are collected and retained and from whom. This is because the current regulations on DNA profile collection mean that the NDNAD includes DNA profiles of a large number of people who have never been convicted of any crime. These DNA profiles are currently retained indefinitely. This practice, was challenged in the European Court of Human Rights who found England and Wales to be in breach of the European Convention of Human Rights. In light of this, both the current and previous UK governments have signalled their intention to enact reform but as yet there has been no change in legislation.

Some groups, including young black men, are known to be overrepresented on the database (2) and we are concerned that those with mental health problems, a vulnerable group of people, are similarly affected. This issue has been largely unexamined and there are no estimates for the number of people with mental disorders on the NDNAD. However in 2008, nine percent of mental health inpatients were admitted via the Criminal Justice system (3). Furthermore, studies of individuals in prison and on remand have concluded that mental disorder is extremely common in these populations with respective rates of 90% and 63% (4,5). It would be surprising if the population of the NDNAD were not to broadly reflect this state of affairs.

It is arguable that a person with mental health problems who has a profile on the NDNAD, despite being without criminal conviction, is not only disadvantaged but also criminalised. This is a potentially unhelpful outcome for the process of engagement and recovery. We have concerns about how some patients come to be on this database. Patients arrested as a direct result of their mental state may find themselves on the database despite being diverted into mental health services without charge. Given that police powers allow that reasonable force may be used to take a DNA sample without consent, a disturbed and oppositional patient may be injured in the process. There is also lack of any formal pathway for removal from the NDNAD, which is at present difficult to navigate.

The new UK Coalition Government has undertaken to adopt the current Scottish model whereby DNA profiles of those arrested but not convicted are retained for six years only. DNA profiles of those convicted will be kept indefinitely as before. This reform would go some way to addressing our concerns.

We would welcome a debate amongst clinicians on the issues surrounding mental health patients and the National DNA Database.


1.National Police Improvement Agency. National DNA Database Report 2007-2009 [document on the internet] National Police improvement agency; 2009 [cited 2 September 2010] Available here

2.Rt Hon Baroness Scotland of Asthal QC, Minister for Criminal Justice and Offender Management. Minutes of evidence 13 March 2007 (Q653) [document on internet] House of Commons [prepared 15 June 2007; cited 2 September 2010] Available here

3.Commission for Healthcare Audit and Inspection. Count Me In 2008 [document on the internet]. Commission for Healthcare Audit and Inspection; 2008. [cited 2 September 2010] Available here

4.Singleton, N., Meltzer, H. & Gatward, R. (1998) Psychiatric Morbidity among Prisoners in England and Wales (Office for National Statistics). London: Stationery Office.

5.Maden, A., Taylor, C. J. A., Brooke, D., et al (1995) Mental Disorder in Remand Prisoners. London: Home Office

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  1. I had completely forgot until I read this but I worked in a forensic psychiatric unit in the late 1990’s and the police came and swabbed many of the patients, I’m guessing all those samples remain on the database.

  2. I think this is a really interesting post. I’m a police officer, a lead on mental health in my police force and the ‘criminalisation’ debate is a very interesting one. Oft put forward, suggesting that the very involvement of CJ agencies in response to psychiatric crisis (whether or not this involves allegations of offending behaviour) amount to criminalisation of the mentally ill.

    There is a body of criminological research form the 1960s onwards, which suggests otherwise. This is counter-balanced by the criminalisation of the mentally ill argument put forward by TEPLIN and others, but it strongly suggests the opposite of criminalisation: I will crudely summarise this for a blog, but happy to expand on it if you like.

    The traditional factors which predict an officer’s decision to arrest are well understood and include not just the fact of an allegation, but the alternatives to arrest, the officer’s experience, the time of shift at which the arrest decision has to occur, the broader situational context of the offence, etc., etc., BITTNER did quantitative research on this in the 1960s on arrests generally and on mental health issues subsequently.

    If you apply this approach to all the factors which normally lead to a) the taking; and b) the retention of DNA in the UK, then the presence of a mental disorder, DIMINISHES the likelihood of DNA being taken in the first place and, in light of the European Case to which you refer, diminishes the likelihood of it being retained in the future. I can give many examples form my own force, where the fact that an arrested individual is to be diverted withou further CJ action, means that DNA is not taken.

    In very many of the cases where service-users come into police custody under arrest for an offence (and I’ve researched tens of thousans of them in my time), they are diverted from the CJ system to the health system, especially if sufficiently acutely ill to require admission to hospital, WITHOUT any further criminal justice action for the original offence, including more serious offending. This occurs, 99.99% of the time, despite there being more than sufficient evidence to charge with that criminal offence; the ‘diversion decision’ is usually being justified, legally, on ‘public interest grounds’, whatever that means.

    In other words, if you punch or rob someone in circumstances where the evidence exists to prosecute you, the fact that you are sufficiently mentally ill to be admitted to health services as an alternative to prosecution, REDUCES the likelihood of prosecution, of DNA being taken and therefore of conviction and DNA being retained.

    I can’t agree that this means people are being criminalised, certinaly no more than others who offend to which there is a similar level of evidence to substantiate the allegation.

    Interesting stuff, though.