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DNA Database of Men Who Pay for Sex? The Strange Push to Make Cops Collect DNA from Suspected Johns

Law enforcement and conservative campaigners want to threaten men who buy sex with the possibility of being marked for life in a government database.
 
 
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For the last six years, police across the United States have been empowered by federal and state law to collect DNA from the people they arrest in order to build a government DNA database. The database includes those who have yet to face trial as well as people who are later found innocent. Now a group of researchers, law enforcement and conservative campaigners want to exploit people's concerns about being included in such a database in order to scare people out of involvement in the sex trade. By threatening people with the possibility of being marked for life in a government database, these well-funded campaigners -- with allies in law enforcement, including the Department of Justice -- are using a questionably legal policing practice, a combination of "scared-straight" strategies that became a signature of the war on drugs and the extension of the surveillance state propelled by the war on terror.

DNA databases have the power to extend government surveillance to the cellular level. In 2005, a provision added to the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act permitted the collection and indefinite retention of DNA from, as the  Center for Constitutional Rights understood at the time, "anyone arrested for any crime whether or not they are convicted, any non-U.S. citizen detained or stopped by federal authorities for any reason, and everyone in federal prison.”

In the intervening years, there have been several challenges to pre-conviction DNA collection and retention, with some courts divided as to whether or not DNA collection is a violation of the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.  

Despite the questionable constitutionality of pre-conviction DNA collection, an organization called Demand Abolition has commissioned a  study proposing that men who buy sex should be added to government DNA databases. Demand Abolition, which is engaged in a national campaign to increase arrests and criminal penalties for prostitution, claims these "crimes justify mandatory DNA testing," in order to serve as "a deterrent to buying sex, as most people who commit crimes do not want their DNA samples taken." Demand Abolition explicitly recognizes and exploits the consequences of being added to a government DNA database for people arrested merely under suspicion of committing misdemeanors, and who have not yet been tried or convicted. 

In fact, many people arrested for buying sex never go to trial; instead, they are routed to a growing number of scared-straight programs, sometimes known as "John's schools," offered by law enforcement. People arrested for buying sex are also disproportionately drawn from low-income communities, communities of color and immigrant communities. In San Francisco, city public defender Jeff Adachi says that over 60 percent of people arrested for "loitering with intent to commit prostitution" are Latino. Some were arrested for not walking away from a decoy cop fast enough, which officers took to mean "intent" to buy sex. 

Such street and Internet stings with decoy cops posing as sex workers have been on the rise in the United States with the spread of the scared-straight programs. The stings, like one staged in New York earlier this month, arrest people suspected of selling sex, as well. Despite concerns that the scared-straight programs are creating an incentive for cops to step up policing in struggling communities in order to collect fines from the people sent to the programs, they've become part of policing practice in dozens of cities. They are also part of a larger national strategy to seek greater punishment of people involved in the sex trade, advanced by organizations like the Hunt Alternatives Fund and its Demand Abolition program. When the Department of Justice claimed anti-prostitution scared-straight programs were effective, it  cited a study conducted by the same researchers Demand Abolition has now commissioned to develop its national strategy. The DoJ also cited evidence from the anti-prostitution researchers Demand Abolition commissioned for a study promoting DNA collection as a next-level deterrent. 

 
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