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Senators Spank DOJ for Failure to Implement Death-in-Custody Reporting Act

On September 20, 2022, the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Sen. Jon Ossoff, issued a scathing report that slammed the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for failing to effectively implement the Death in Custody Reporting Act, Pub.L. No. 113-242.

First passed in 2000 and reauthorized in 2014, the law requires states that accept certain federal funds to report deaths in prisons, jails and police custody to DOJ. The information is vital to show the number of people dying in custody in different jurisdictions and how - e.g., homicide, suicide or various types of illness.

From 2001 to 2019 – the years that data was reported so far since the law took effect – approximately 84,500 people died while in custody. In 2019, the most recent data cited in the Subcommittee’s report, 3,853 people died in state and privately-operated prisons nationwide while 1,200 died in local jails, where suicide was the leading cause of death. The report excluded deaths in federal detention, which are reported separately.

But spotty reporting makes those numbers suspect, Senators said, noting at least 990 in-custody deaths that were missed in Fiscal Year 2021 alone. Moreover, that same year, the “vast majority” of custodial death information collected from states “was incomplete.” In fact, 70% of custodial death records were missing at least one required piece of data, and only two states had submitted complete data.

These failures “undermined transparency and Congressional oversight of deaths in custody,” the Subcommittee found. They were also preventable, since both DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General and its Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) had warned about deficiencies in data collection methodology – warnings that were ignored.

BJS did a competent job of surveying in-custody deaths when the law first took effect. But when the Act was reauthorized, it permitted the U.S. Attorney General to withhold up to 10% of Justice Assistance Grant funds from states that failed to report in-custody deaths.

Tellingly, no such penalties have been imposed for non-compliance. But the provision created a jurisdictional problem for BJS. Because it is a “statistical agency,” DOJ determined BJS could not properly make “penalty determinations” that might result in withheld funds. So custodial death reporting was transferred to DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) in 2020.

Since then – as of the date of the Subcommittee’s report – BJA had not publicly released any in-custody death data. DOJ had also failed to tell Congress how the data could be used to reduce in-custody deaths once it is finally collected; the agency said it didn’t expect to release that report until 2024 – eight years after its last 2016 deadline. Lastly, the Subcommittee found that DOJ did not “properly manage the transition” of data collection from BJS to BJA.

The Subcommittee heard testimony from a DOJ official, family members of 10 people who had died in custody, as well as two criminal justice experts. Senators then concluded that DOJ “failed to provide full and complete information to the Subcommittee,” which “delay[ed] potential reforms that could restore the integrity of this critical program.”

In summary, the Subcommittee said that DOJ “deprived Congress and the American public of information about who is dying in custody and why,” something Senators called a “missed opportunity to prevent avoidable deaths.” See: Uncounted Deaths in America’s Prisons & Jails: How the Department of Justice Failed to Implement the Death in Custody Reporting Act, U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (2022).

Additional source: Washington Post