Professor in Political Science and Computer and Information Science

David Lazer

DNA and the Criminal Justice System

The developments in genetics have posed particular policy challenges in a variety of areas in our society

The developments in genetics have posed particular policy challenges in a variety of areas in our society. One of the earliest areas to be affected has been criminal justice, because of the durability and polymorphism of genetic material.

Biological material left at a crime scene (e.g., a rape) can thus be remarkably powerful for investigations and in trials. The application of this technology has, for example, led to close to 300 exonerations, as well as thousands of investigatory leads from databases in the US. DNA thus presents a series of policy challenges, from how to learn from errors of the past that DNA has uncovered, to dealing with the potential threat to civil liberties, to the practicalities of how to manage a new and powerful technology within the criminal justice system.

I have edited a book on this subject, which lays out a wide array of perspectives. Probably the work that has received the most attention is a paper evaluating the potential of using existing DNA databases for the identification of relatives of those in the databases as potential suspects. I have also coauthored with FrederickBieber a number of op eds, including on the lessons to be learned from the wrongful conviction of Dennis Maher in Massachusetts, on the use of DNA to identify suspects through their relatives’ DNA, and concerns raised by a DNA dragnet in Massachusetts, and the issues raised by the identification of a suspect in a serial murder case in California.

DNA and the Criminal Justice System: Publications List

Publications list

David Lazer, "Finding Criminals Through DNA of Their Relatives," Science 312, June 2, 2006. (with F. Bieber and C. Brenner).

David Lazer, "Statutory Frameworks for Regulating Information Flows:  Drawing Lessons for DNA Data Banks from other Government Data Systems." Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics 34, 2006: 366-374. (with V. Mayer-Schoenberger)

D. Lazer, DNA and the Criminal Justice System. The Technology of Justice (ed.), MIT press 2004.D. Lazer, The Technology of Justice: DNA and the Criminal Justice System (MIT press, 2004), including: "Introduction: DNA and the Criminal Justice System," and "DNA and the Criminal Justice System: Consensus and Debate," (with Michelle Meyer). (See reviews in the Journal of Clinical InvestigationsJournal of Forensic Sciences and APSA's sponsored Law& Politics Book Review)


D. Lazer and F. Bieber, “Familial Searching, its promise and perils,” LA Times, July 10, 2010.

Frederick Bieber and David Lazer, "DNA Sweep Must Be Accompanied by Informed Consent," Provincetown Banner, January 20, 2005.

Frederick Bieber and David Lazer, "Guilt by Association?" The New Scientist, September 23, 2004.

Frederick Bieber and David Lazer, "Lessons Learned from a Miscarriage of Justice" Boston Globe, April 12, 2003.

Journal Article
Publication date: 
David Lazer
Frederick R. Bieber
Charles H. Brenner

DNA methods are now widely used for many forensic purposes, including routine investigation of serious crimes and for identification of persons killed in mass disasters or wars (1–4). DNA databases of convicted offenders are maintained by every U.S. state and nearly every industrialized country, allowing comparison of crime scene DNA profiles to one another and to known offenders (5).

DNA criminal crime justice relatives database privacy security evidence biological