Even columnists have heroes. Of course, we don’t demand that our heroes do really hard stuff like courageously rushing a well-defended machine gun next or throwing down the throttle on the X-15, climbing to the very edge of Heaven, and breaking the sound barrier. Being a sometimes cerebral and self-centered lot, the pundit guild will elevate any guy or gal to the status of Napoleon or Joan of Arc and take a chisel to an unoccupied space on Mount Rushmore if he or she can scribble a great first line.

For example, Francis Bacon (1561-1626), philosopher, Lord Chancellor of England, and occasional essayist, made the pundit pantheon with his essay “Of Truth.” Even after a beer, one can’t help thinking big thoughts about truth, justice, and the endemic lack of political leadership after reading Bacon’s great first line:

What is truth? Said jesting [Pontius] Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.”

It made me want to read on about what Bacon thought about “truth.” No one ever claimed that the California Legislature is an oracle of truth, but it is a forum where ideology, personal ambition, money, passion, and the objective facts about problems clash in the making of public policy. Some legislators, before they cast their vote, search out and embrace the facts or truth of the situation while others, like Pontius Pilate, run from the truth. Of course, some run to the restroom during an important vote, but that is another story. Truth can sometimes become inconvenient and disruptive to those who want to continue to lazily and comfortable sleep in an ideological slumber.

The advancement of science, as one method to pursue the truth, can certainly disrupt the comfortable status quo. It is interesting to see how science, in the form of using DNA specimens and evidence as personal identifiers, is beginning to impact public policy in the State Capitol. Here are two examples of how the capabilities of modern science are shaking up criminal justice and child support policy.

Current law requires that any person convicted of a serious felony, such as murder, sexual assault, mayhem, robbery, arson, give a blood or saliva sample, as well as a fingerprint to prison authorities. Those DNA specimens provided by prisoners can then be compared to the information maintained in the DNA Data Bank at the California Department of Justice (DOJ) to provide key evidence for solving unsolved crimes. The FBI estimates that each sexual assault offender has committed 5.2 felony sexual assaults to which he has never been linked.

But the problem is that there are, according to DOJ, approximately 3,000 current prisoners who are simply refusing to consent to the DNA sampling. The hardcore criminals don’t care that it’s a misdemeanor offense to refuse to allow a corrections officer to get a quick saliva sample. As a result, inmates who never gave a DNA sample are being paroled every day.

A current piece of legislation, SB 1242 (Brulte) would allow prison guards to use reasonable force to obtain the DNA samples and protect the correctional officers from civil liability. But the leader of the Senate, John Burton, is demanding changes to weaken the civil liability protections in the bill. Supporters of SB 1242, prosecutors and crime victims, think that such changes would be fatal to the bill’s effectiveness in solving the problem. If the Department of Corrections is afraid of getting sued by prisoner rights organizations, they will simply not instruct the prison guards to collect the valuable DNA samples. Without sufficient public pressure, this bill and an identical bill introduced by Assemblyman LaSuer will die in their respective and misnamed “public safety” committees because of this preference for prisoner rights instead of public policy.

Legislators are also deciding how much influence DNA specimens should have on our state’s child support policy. Assemblyman Rod Wright is arguing that while the criminal courts have recognized the scientific validity of DNA testing, resulting in the release of more than 100 innocent people from prisons across the country, the same DNA testing is not allowed in civil courts after two years to prove or disprove paternity judgments.   The current situation is created by a long established common law tradition that holds that once a judge has ruled that a particular man is the father, the judgment must stand.

Assemblyman Wright thinks that it is wrong and unjust that some men are being required to pay child support for up to 18 years for children who are not their biological children. AB 2240 (Wright) would provide for a judgment establishing paternity to be set aside or to vacate any order for child support upon finding that the previously established father is not the biological father. In deciding whether to vote for AB 2240, legislators will have to weigh the objective facts provided by the DNA evidence as to who is the biological father of the child with the possible emotional and financial impact on the child. In this more complicated case, legislators must serve the interests of justice and also craft a child support policy that, from the beginning of the dispute, serves the best interest of the child.

 

Near the ceiling of the Library of Congress you can find, chiseled in stone, the words of Francis Bacon, “Knowledge is Power.” Legislators are learning more and more each day that science is giving them new tools with which to improve public policy. Using these tools with wisdom will be the true measure as to whether or not they craft public policy that benefits the residents of California.

April 25, 2002

Postscript: SB 1242 (Brulte) was signed into law while AB 2240 (Wright) was vetoed.