Genetics, Crime and Justice

Genetics, Crime and Justice

Debra Wilson

As our understanding of genetics increases, its use in criminal justice becomes more attractive. This timely book examines the use of genetic information both in criminal investigations and during the trial process. It discusses current scientific understanding and considers some potential legal, ethical and sociological issues with the use of genetic information. Topics include rights of privacy and consent in obtaining DNA samples, evidentiary issues in court, the impact of genetic evidence on punishment theory and sentencing, and genetic discrimination.

Chapter 2: History of genetics and criminal justice

Debra Wilson

Subjects: law - academic, biotechnology and pharmaceutical law, criminal law and justice, law and society, regulation and governance


The idea that a person’s genetic make-up is the sole determinant of his or her physical and behavioural characteristics is difficult to understand and accept. As a society, we pride ourselves on the idea that free will and self-awareness distinguish us from other forms of life. As individuals, we value concepts like freedom of expression or freedom of choice. Individual freedoms to make our own decisions, to control our own fate, to learn, and to grow are seen as fundamental rights that must be protected. A genetic determination argument, at its most extreme, is incompatible with these ideas. It suggests that none of those freedoms which we value so highly actually exist. Although as individuals we prefer to believe that we make decisions and choose to act in certain ways, genetic determinism considers that every part of our personality is in fact pre-determined by our genetic make-up. If as a society we favour the idea of free will and regard it as a beneficial, and perhaps necessary, element of our society, what is the appeal of a genetic determinism argument? Why does it frequently reoccur in discussions of criminal conduct, and in arguments in the criminal justice system? This chapter will provide a brief overview of the history of genetic-type arguments. It will begin by looking at early discussions amongst classical writers about the heritability of characteristics, and how this developed into early genetic-based thought and policy.

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