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Monday, 26 March 2001
Page: 25652


Mrs VALE (9:40 PM) —The Crimes Amendment (Forensic Procedures) Bill 2001 is good news for justice and law enforcement but it is bad news for those of criminal intent. It is good news for the community as it will also give an enormous boost to community safety and confidence, and it has my full support. Most of the amendments in this bill relate to the Crimes Act 1914 and other amendments to the Mutual Assistance In Criminal Matters Act 1987. The main purpose of this bill is to facilitate the establishment of the CrimTrac national DNA database system. It will do this by allowing the collection of forensic material from any serious convicted offender still under sentence, providing safeguards for taking forensic material from volunteers for use in criminal investigations and storing the information on the database. The DNA database will also store profiles of samples of material collected from the scene of unsolved crimes. Each time a new profile is added to the database it will be searched against all existing profiles. This will give the database the potential to link offenders and suspects to unsolved crimes, including multiple and seemingly unrelated offences.

DNA is an abbreviation for an almost unpronounceable acid called deoxyribonucleic contained in human body material which has become known as the `little strand of life'. It is contained within the nucleus of body cells. Human DNA contains about three billion steps. It is found in every cell in the body except red blood cells. Apart from identical twins, no two people share the same sequence of information. DNA is highly discriminatory with the most common profile being found in approximately one person in 360 million matches. Therefore the chances of random matches within the Australian population are remote indeed. DNA can be taken from blood, skin, hair follicles or saliva samples. At crime scenes, it can be taken from a beer glass, a cigarette butt, a drug wrapping, smudgy fingerprints or broken fingernails. A DNA match is not usually proof of guilt, but it does show that a particular person was present at a crime scene.

The bill represents a giant step forward in the fight against crime. As the Minister for Justice and Customs has said, it is a real springtime for the innocent and a winter for the guilty. It will provide an enormous asset to the police, helping them to carry out their investigations more quickly and efficiently by reducing the number of suspects. This blessing has come to us via advances in science and technology. It will help solve crimes, it will prevent crimes and it will clear innocent people from suspicion. By reducing the impact of investigations on innocent people and completely releasing them from suspicion, it will be a big step forward for civil liberties in Australia. The DNA database can also bring justice to innocent victims of false accusations and erroneous charges and free them from imprisonment.

In the United States, DNA evidence has led to the freeing of 99 prisoners in California and 13 death row inmates in Illinois were cleared of their crimes following DNA testing. Each year in Australia, some 30,000 people are reported missing. Their families and friends are left devastated, not knowing where the person is or what has happened to them. At least 12 people are affected when someone goes missing. For some families, their lives will never be the same again. Fortunately, 99 per cent of the people reported missing are eventually located, but there are some who are not because they have become victims of crime. I have no doubt that the DNA database will be a useful tool in helping investigators solve some of the most baffling missing person cases and provide families with the answers that they so desperately crave. Detective Superintendent Robin Napper, who was on secondment to the New South Wales Police Service after helping to establish the British DNA database, has pointed out that in the United Kingdom more suspects are confessing to murders when confronted with DNA evidence—an unthinkable proposition even a few years ago when most sought to contest their way through the courts. So this development is also a huge saving in costs.

This bill is one of the many benefits that have come to Australia from the election of the Howard government in 1996 and the election of a government that keeps its election promises. I note that in 1992 the Council of Europe passed recommendations on the use of DNA analysis in the context of the penal system. DNA databases have been operating successfully in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and some European countries, among others. Information from the database in the United Kingdom which was established in 1995 shows that almost 90 per cent of sex offenders have previous convictions for lesser offences such as house burglary and two-thirds of the volume of crime is committed by eight per cent of the British population; and the United Kingdom database averages about 400 matches per week.

In the United Kingdom the DNA database has been used to make over 10,000 matches between crime scenes and suspects. It has been used in clearing up, on average, over 300 crimes per month. There is a cold hit rate of 18 per cent of matches arising from comparing whole indexes—that is, by comparing the whole crime scene index against the whole of the serious offenders index. This is a better record than fingerprint matching, where the hit rate is 10 per cent. This must make DNA the greatest forensic breakthrough since Sir Edward Grey laid down fingerprint classification in 1897—over 100 years ago. In the United Kingdom more than 600,000 samples have been submitted for analysis. Of these, just over 500,000 have been profiled and included in the database. From April 1998 to the end of January 1999, there were 35 murder-manslaughter person to crime matches, 112 rapes, 41 sexual assaults, 40 grievous bodily harms and 88 serious robberies, 51 aggravated burglaries and 46 arson person to crime matches. These are very encouraging results, and they give us some idea of the benefits we can confidently expect will follow from the passing of this bill. There will be huge time and human resources savings that can be allocated to other policing tasks that will in turn bring even better crime clear-up rates.

I know that there are some people who have reservations about a DNA database from a civil liberties and privacy point of view. It is similar to the opposition that fingerprinting faced when it was introduced as a crime detection tool in Australia in 1902. Today, no-one questions fingerprints being kept on a national register. It would be unthinkable to discard fingerprinting, and the same principles apply to DNA. This bill contains safeguards relating to the taking of forensic material from volunteers, procedures to ensure there is no misuse of information obtained and procedures for making orders by state and territory judges, magistrates and other court officers authorising the carrying out of forensic procedures.

I understand that the Australian forensic laboratories have deliberately chosen a DNA profiling system that, apart from gender, reveals no information about a person in relation to physical or mental attributes and status. The system tests only sections of the DNA that have no function and are essentially irrelevant for other purposes. It will not be possible to test for a criminality gene or to determine sexual preference, which has worried some critics of the database. Profile matches by the database will be confirmed by tests of a second sample from the individual where there is an indication that an investigation will proceed. The result of the second test will be used for court purposes, not the results of the initial match. The profiling system that has been chosen has been described by Australasian Science magazine as being:

... robust, commercially prepared and [has] been rigorously validated. It is a system that is recognised and used internationally so that results can be directly compared between Australian and overseas laboratories. It is a process in which all of the major government forensic science service providers are involved.

Obtaining DNA samples from criminal suspects should accord with the basic principles of our legal system, and I believe this bill meets that requirement. There has been extensive consultation right across Australia, including between the federal and New South Wales privacy commissioners, CrimTrac and law enforcement agencies.

I was reassured to see from an Interpol document that Australia participated in the first international DNA users conference in Lyons in November 1999. From the minutes, I noted that the following countries made limited contributions: Australia, Denmark, Netherlands, Argentina, Austria, the United Kingdom, the United States, Italy, Germany, Finland, Switzerland, Belgium, Norway, Bulgaria, France, Council of Europe, United Arab Emirates, Tunisia, Canada, Venezuela, Jordan, New Zealand and Saudi Arabia. Some of the issues raised were DNA profiling, DNA databases and ensuring integrity from the scene of the crime to the laboratory, and the value of DNA evidence, including the education of people involved in prosecution in court procedures to avoid misunderstandings and the misinterpretation of evidence. Most discussions centred upon quality assurance along the entire evidence chain and the need for proper training. One of the recommendations was the establishment of competence tests for laboratories and personnel and their accreditation. I was interested to see that the Netherlands forensic institute aimed to spend 70 per cent of available time and resources for the year 2000 on forensic case investigations and 15 per cent on research and development.

What this says to me is that the government is making the right in-principle decision to establish a national DNA database, and it is doing so on world best practice procedures and safeguards. This bill and the supporting state legislation contain adequate safeguards. Similar legislation has been debated in many countries with strong civil liberties and privacy advocacy bodies. The safeguards have been well argued and well established and are contained in this bill and in supporting state and territory legislation. This is one area where we must support the pendulum that points in favour of the victims of crime and leaves the guilty vulnerable to face the consequences of their crime. Rape victims have the right to have the perpetrator identified. The children, husband, wife or other relatives of a murder victim are left to suffer the grief that follows the murder of a loved one. It assists in the grieving process if the person who committed the crime is found, identified and convicted. Overseas experience shows DNA databases have an outstanding record in bringing to justice offenders in otherwise unsolvable major crimes.

Earlier this year in the New South Wales town of Wee Waa, we saw DNA sampling and justice in action. In this town of 1,900 people, a 93-year-old woman had been brutally raped and bashed 15 months earlier. The offender had not been detected. In the police operation earlier this year, all men between the ages of 18 and 45 were invited to volunteer a DNA sample. There was an overwhelming and enthusiastic voluntary response. Within a week or so a local man presented himself to the police and was subsequently charged. It was a victory for DNA based law enforcement.

I detect a growing discontent in the community amongst ordinary people about the fair enforcement of the law. There is a perception that the police are having to try to enforce the law with one hand tied behind their back. There is the view that the legal pendulum is swinging too far in favour of the offender. This bill is good news for justice and for law enforcement, and it is good news for the law abiding citizens of the community. It goes a long way to compensating for the shackles that have been placed upon policing. I fully support this bill, and I congratulate the Minister for Justice and Customs on its successful carriage through the parliament.