By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Republicans scratching for a way to fund Gov. Walker’s plan to collect DNA from suspects upon arrest may have a chance at extra dollars courtesy of Congress.
President Barack Obama signed a bipartisan bill into law last week that lays out $10 million in grants for states to start taking DNA upon arrest. It’s unclear when states can apply or how much money Wisconsin might win, but any amount would help reduce the initiative’s $7.2 million price tag. The federal money also might take pressure off Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, who has proposed using millions of dollars earmarked for schools, prisons, gang prevention efforts and defense attorneys to cover the effort.
Both Walker and Van Hollen said they were encouraged the bill passed. But civil rights advocates see the initiative as an invasion of privacy. They argue the state can’t possibly win enough money to make any real difference.
“Certainly we’re not going to get half of the federal money that’s out there,” said Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Wisconsin chapter. “The proposal is going to remain expensive. This is certainly not going to solve the funding issue.”
Nearly 30 states and the federal government take DNA from suspects upon arrest for qualifying offenses, according to the National Institute of Justice, the U.S. Justice Department’s research arm. Proponents contend taking the sure-fire genetic identifier upon arrest expands state and federal DNA databases, helping identify more criminals and clearing more unsolved crimes.
Wisconsin now collects DNA only from convicted felons and sex offenders. Walker, a Republican, promised last year to include measures in the 2013-2015 state budget requiring police to take DNA from anyone arrested for a felony, anyone arrested for a number of misdemeanor sex offenses and any adult convicted of any misdemeanor. Walker said then he believed the expansion would help police solve crimes quickly and reduce the cost of long-term investigations.
The plan wouldn’t come cheap, though. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates the expansion would lead to police collecting an additional 68,000 DNA samples annually.
State Justice Department officials say they need $7.2 million to fund the expansion’s first two years. Van Hollen, a Republican, has proposed Walker pay for the initiative with $9.8 million in criminal surcharges that DOJ now passes on to fund school’s anti-alcohol and bullying efforts, prison guard training, gang prevention efforts, and public defenders’ training. Van Hollen has insisted the money is really DOJ’s anyway. But critics have called the plan wrongheaded.
A group of Republicans and Democrats led by Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat and former federal prosecutor, introduced a bill in July that authorizes a $10 million annual grant program for states looking to start taking DNA upon arrest. The lawmakers’ work was spurred by the story of Katie Sepich, a New Mexico college student who was raped and murdered in 2003. Her killer was arrested that same year for unrelated crimes, but the state didn’t take DNA from felony arrestees at the time and he wasn’t linked to the slaying for three years later, when he was convicted of another crime.
Obama signed the bill into law last week.
“This legislation – now law – is another tool in law enforcement’s toolkit,” Schiff said in a statement. “Just as we fingerprint arrestees and those convicted of crimes, it makes absolute sense to collect a DNA profile when someone is arrested for a violent felony, and this bill will encourage states around the nation to join California and other states that have adopted arrestee testing.”
Walker issued a statement Friday saying he was pleased Obama signed the bill, saying it could help as Wisconsin ramps up collection efforts. Justice spokeswoman Dana Brueck echoed Walker in an email.
“We’re encouraged that our federal partners see value in this type of legislation at the state level,” she said.
It’s unclear when states can apply for the grants. Much depends on when the next congressional appropriations bill passes. Regardless, the most a state can receive is 100 percent of its first year costs. That would add up to about $2.2 million for Wisconsin. The state would be on its own after that.
Even if Wisconsin won the maximum amount, the expansion’s cost-to-benefit ratio still wouldn’t make sense, the ACLU’s Ahmuty said. More names in databases don’t automatically translate to more crimes solved, he said.
“It’s like wasting federal money instead of state money,” Ahmuty said. “There’s better things they can do.”