Feds ignore order to track jail deaths

Despite a 2013 federal law, the Department of Justice has not collected data on any in-custody deaths in the U.S.

PALESTINE, Tex. -- With more than 100 jail deaths a year, Texas leads the nation, and probably accounts for more than 10 percent of the U.S. total of in-custody

No one knows for sure, though, because the federal government hasn't tracked in-custody deaths in the United States since 2014, despite a federal law requiring the Department of Justice to do so. Under the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013, the Department of Justice was directed to deliver a complete report to Congress on in-custody deaths in 2016.

DOJ, however, neither compiled the statistics nor delivered the report, citing difficulties in collecting data from county, state, and federal agencies

Up until five years ago, the nation averaged nearly 1,000 jail deaths a year. In 2014, the last year federal data was collected, reports showed nearly 5,000 prisoners died in U.S. correctional facilities, a number that includes state prisons and local jails.

Making matters worse, any statistics on in-custody deaths collected by the federal government will be sealed from the public, a spokesperson for DOJ's Office of Justice Programs told the Palestine, Texas, Herald-Press.

“This is shocking and incredibly damaging,” Diana Claitor, executive director of the Texas Jail Project, said. “The Department of Justice is well-staffed and well-funded.

“This, obviously, isn't about a lack of mandate – it's about a lack of will on some higher level.”

U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, (D-Va), the bill's primary sponsor, was equally blunt.

“I've just been disgusted that the executive branch can't figure out how to require people to fill out these little forms,” he said. “It can't be that hard.”

In Texas, the Commission on Jail Standards, with only four inspectors to cover roughly 250 county jails, has compiled accurate data on in-custody deaths since 2008.

So far this year, Texas county jails reported 83 in-custody deaths. If this trend continues, 2019 will be the deadliest year yet.

As in other states, medical neglect has caused an unknown number of jail deaths in Texas – mostly of pre-trail detainees who haven't been convicted.

Brandon Wood, executive director of TCJS, told the Herald-Press Thursday his agency is willing to help the federal government meet its mandate on data collection. “I think the TCJS would be able to provide the DOJ with some useful suggestions,” he said.

In a 2018 letter to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, ACLU officials expressed “extreme disappointment” with DOJ's failure to comply with the Death in Custody Reporting Act.

“Simply put, the federal government does not know how many people are killed by law enforcement every year,” the ACLU said.

Without federal reports, residents of some states rely on newspapers to track such deaths; others have no way of knowing how many people are dying, and under what circumstances.

Kara McCarthy, spokesperson for the Office of Justice Programs, said in-custody death data collection by the BJA will begin in earnest next month. Once the data is received, however, it will most likely not be made available to the public.

“As part of their clearance to collect data...BJA agreed to pass the mortality information to BJS,” McCarthy stated in an email to the Herald-Press. “Any data transferred becomes subject to data protection guidelines.”

In the six years since Congress passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act, the federal government has changed the name of the “Death in Custody Reporting Program,” or DCRP, to “Mortality in Correctional Institutions,” or MCI. It also changed the collection authority from the Bureau of Justice Statistics to the Bureau of Justice Analysis – both under DOJ.

Utah Independent State Rep. Carol Moss, who has worked to reduce overdose deaths in jails, said solid federal data would be invaluable to state and local agencies.

“We want to know what's going on,” she said. “We want to know if there's something we could do to...stem the tide.”

William Patrick is a reporter with the Palestine, Tex., Herald-Press. This is the latest story in an ongoing series of stories and editorials titled “Death without conviction” by the Herald-Press detailing lack of transparency regarding in-custody deaths in local jails. Reach Patrick at reporter@palestineherald.com and editor Jeff Gerritt at jgerritt@palestineherald.com.


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