Pa. Legislature eyes wider DNA sampling of convicts
Current law requires testing for those convicted of felonies and certain other offenses
By Mark Scolforo
HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania lawmakers moved closer this week to mandating that DNA samples be collected from people who have been convicted of crimes, something supporters predict will help solve serious crimes.
The state House voted 157-32 for a bill that would require cheek swabs from those convicted of any first-degree misdemeanor and a list of 15 second-degree misdemeanors. Current law requires testing for those convicted of felonies and certain other offenses. Pennsylvania classifies as first-degree misdemeanors many crimes that are felonies in other states.
It was sent to the state Senate, where a nearly identical proposal is pending. A Senate Republican aide said Friday one of the bills could get a final vote before lawmakers adjourn for the summer.
"Not only will some crimes be solved, serial offenders would be stopped before they could reoffend, and innocent people would be ruled out of suspicion in cases where their DNA does not match what's found at the scene," said Tom Dymek, an aide to House Judiciary Chairman Ron Marsico, R-Dauphin, the bill's prime sponsor.
Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, opposes the bill in its current form, saying it would test for too many minor offenses, and its costs are not funded. A fiscal note for the House bill estimated the additional testing would eventually cost more than $3 million annually, based on an estimate of 40,000 offenders.
"Gov. Wolf believes we should expand DNA collection to combat violent crime," said his press secretary, J.J. Abbott. "However, this bill expands the law to include more than 100 misdemeanors, including many offenses that are non-violent in nature such as retail theft and littering."
The Senate will likely consider amending the proposal to remove a few of the less serious misdemeanors, said Mike Stoll, chief of staff to Sen. Tom Killion, R-Delaware, sponsor of the Senate bill .
"The list can't be reduced that much, or you defeat the purpose of it," Stoll said.
Previous efforts in recent years to expand DNA sampling in Pennsylvania have failed, partly because of opposition to collecting the genetic material upon arrest. The current proposal is limited to those who have been convicted. The House bill also would not authorize testing of prisoners already in jail, only the newly convicted.
Marsico "just wanted to make sure that the due process and the civil liberties rights of people, he thought they were best preserved by doing it post-conviction, where there's been a finding of guilt," Dymek said.
The expanded testing would go into effect in December 2019, which means the financial impact won't be felt by the state police and local crime labs for more than two years.
"This is a proven way of solving crimes and protecting victims," said Greg Rowe, legislative director for the state association of district attorneys. "When it comes to protecting victims, and when it comes to apprehending violent criminals, there's no price tag."
A spokeswoman for the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said the organization was opposed, calling the expanded list of offenses excessive.