1,000 Deaths In Custody Went Unreported Last Year Because US Justice System Doesn’t Care About The People It Jails


from the disposable-human-beings dept

Tossing people into prison is throwing them away. They’re no longer real human beings. They’re just items being processed, moved through the system at whatever pace the system feels is appropriate. And once you’ve begun dehumanizing the people in your care, you can easily stop caring about them.

A recent report [PDF] by the Government Accountability Office covering DOJ in-custody death data collection processes highlights just how little anyone cares what happens to people jails and prisons claim to be rehabilitating. The title of the report sounds innocuous enough: Additional Action Needed to Help Ensure Data Collected by DOJ Are Utilized. But the details are horrific.

The Death in Custody Reporting Act (DCRA) was passed in 2013 and went into force the following year. But seven years down the road, the law has apparently changed very little about this reporting process. Nor has it acted as a deterrent against non-reporting or under-reporting deaths. The criminal justice system hums along, discarding human lives and replacing them with incomplete or missing data.

The DOJ is tasked with collecting this data and assuring compliance from state and local entities. It has not done so, despite having had several years to put this in motion.

While states across the U.S. and DOJ have undertaken multi-year efforts to gather death in custody data, the department has not yet studied the state data, for purposes of the report required by DCRA. DOJ officials told us in September 2022 that they had not studied the data to determine the means by which the information could be used to reduce deaths in custody, in part, because the data provided by states were incomplete or missing.

By law, the Attorney General may impose a penalty on states that fail to comply with DCRA reporting requirements (i.e., do not provide data on deaths in custody as required). However, DOJ’s efforts to determine states’ compliance with DCRA have been delayed and DOJ has not yet made such determinations. In addition, even if these data were of sufficient quality, DOJ officials indicated the department is not required to publish these data pursuant to DCRA and, as of September 2022, has no plans to do so.

It’s been all carrot (DOJ grants to those complying) and no stick (zero penalties for the uncooperative). That has led to the ongoing debacle the DOJ insists (as it has for years) it takes very seriously. It has managed to put together a pretty solid collection of data on federal prisons, in which nearly 2,700 people have died since 2014.

Unfortunately, the DOJ has decided it won’t publish state and local data simply because it’s not required to, which means it has no obligation to get these figures right because nobody will be seeing them. And, so it hasn’t done anything to ensure better reporting from state and local entities, something that has resulted in a massive undercount of deaths in custody in the United States.

Most state submissions contained incomplete records. Of the 47 states that submitted data, we found that two states had provided 100 percent of records with all the required elements. In contrast, seven states did not report any records with all of the required elements


Some states did not accurately account for all deaths in custody that occurred in fiscal year 2021. By reviewing documentation available on state government web sites and public databases on arrest related deaths, we identified nearly 1,000 deaths that occurred during fiscal year 2021 that states did not report in response to DCRA.

And that thousand unreported deaths may actually be an undercount.

Not all states made data on deaths in correctional facilities available at the time we conducted our audit work and therefore, we were unable to test the completeness of all states’ submissions. As a result, the number of prison deaths we identified may be narrower than the universe of prison deaths not reported to DOJ for fiscal year 2021.

And some of these state agencies got paid without doing the homework to earn it.

[F]our states that accepted JAG awards did not report any deaths in custody in their state—even though reporting this information is a requirement of receiving the grant funding and deaths occurred in their state during this time period.

This could get straightened out if the DOJ had any apparent interest in obtaining reliable data from state agencies. But it doesn’t. It has promised Congress and its other oversight it will, any day now, put a plan in place to ensure better reporting. That’s what it’s been saying since 2016. But, as of July 2022, the DOJ admitted to GAO investigators that it still had yet to complete an assessment it had promised to deliver by October 2021.

Going forward, it looks to be more of the same, unless someone can finally talk the DOJ into doing its job properly.

DOJ has developed a framework for determining states’ compliance. However, it has not developed a detailed implementation plan that includes metrics and corresponding performance targets for determining state compliance, or roles and responsibilities for taking corrective action should these efforts not fully succeed. Specifically, DOJ documentation identifies criteria for determining compliance and actions it could take to increase compliance. However, DOJ does not have specific metrics and performance targets on, for example, the number of states it expects to achieve full compliance, or by when it expects this to occur. Further, DOJ has not identified roles and responsibilities for taking corrective actions.

Nothing will change. What the GAO has seen here, it will see again in the future. The 2014 law will continue to be shrugged off by the DOJ and the agencies reporting to it. Accurate and timely data could give the DOJ a heads up on problematic facilities and take steps towards reducing in-custody deaths. But since no one involved in counting up this human cost seems to care whether prisoners live or die, reporting will continue to be incomplete, inadequate, and consequence-free for those blowing off the law’s requirements.

Filed Under: doj, gao, prisoners

Las Vegas News Magazine

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