Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
As the state House ponders expanding DNA collection from people arrested but not yet convicted, lawmakers are struggling to square their desire to fight crime with the limited capacity of a lab system already buckling under current demands.
The proposal would allow law enforcement to take DNA samples from people arrested for any felonies and certain misdemeanors. Right now, state law allows only for such collection after conviction.
Supporters point to dozens of other states that have enacted similar legislation, and say having such samples earlier helps close cases and exonerate innocents.
"Studies have shown that the collection of DNA from individuals who commit lower-level gateway crimes facilitates the prosecution of unsolved felonies," wrote the bill's sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, in a co-sponsorship memo.
But law enforcement groups, which support expanded collection in theory, are still urging caution. The state's DNA labs are swamped already. The Pennsylvania State Police operate one of the state's three DNA labs, and Lt. Col. Scott Snyder urged lawmakers to be cautious at a House Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday.
"Failure to properly plan and fund any new legislation would potentially cripple the existing DNA laboratory system," said Snyder, "creating larger backlogs than we experience today and adversely affecting our ability to adequately serve the criminal justice community and the citizens of the commonwealth."
Bruce Beemer, of the Attorney General's Office, acknowledged expanding DNA collection could add to labs' burden.
"What good does it do to implement this kind of legislation if we're on a 200- to 300-day backlog," said Beemer, "and none of this stuff is ever going to get looked at or analyzed or put into the system until after somebody's either convicted, or the case is dismissed or they're exonerated?"
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania echoed the warnings, though the group opposes the legislation in theory as well as in practice.
"Expansion of DNA collection to include people who have not been convicted of a crime is a massive ballooning of the total information society," said spokesman Andy Hoover. "It is expensive, it causes backlogs in DNA labs, it does little to solve crime, and it may be unconstitutional under the state constitution." He suggested that lawmakers who want to help police close cases should require law enforcement to adopt a number of best practices by passing related legislation.
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