GAO found DOJ missed nearly 1,000 in-custody deaths from state data last year: report

"This information is critical to improve transparency in prisons and jails, identifying trends in custodial deaths that may warrant corrective action," according to the report.

Updated: September 20, 2022 - 4:20pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

The Department of Justice missed 990 deaths from custodial death data last year, according to a newly released report from a Senate subcommittee.

On Tuesday, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a 10-month bipartisan report on the DOJ's death in custody data that was reviewed by the Government Accountability Office.

According to the report, during Fiscal Year 2021, "At least 341 missing and potentially reportable prison deaths were disclosed on states' public websites but were not collected by [DOJ's Bureau of Justice and Assistance]."

Additionally, "At least 649 missing arrest deaths were reported in a public database maintained by a non-profit civil rights organization, but were not collected by BJA."

The Death in Custody Reporting Act (DCRA), which Congress reauthorized in 2013, requires states that accept the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant to report custodial death data to DOJ.

The DOJ had the Bureau of Justice Statistics collect this data from 2000 to 2019.

"During this period, BJS claims to have collected data from an average of 98% of all local jails and 100% of all state prisons," according to the report.

In 2016, the DOJ told Congress that the Bureau of Justice Assistance would begin collecting the data, instead, which it has done since 2020.

However, since the transfer to BJA, "DOJ has not publicly reported on any data that BJA has collected."

Also, DOJ is not expected to complete its report until September 2024, at least eight years after its due date.

The subcommittee's investigation found that most of the data collected by DOJ was incomplete, including "70% of records on deaths in custody were missing at least one DCRA 2013-required data field; approximately 40% of the records did not include a description of the circumstances surrounding the death; and 32% of the records were missing more than one DCRA 2013-required data field."

According to the report, "This information is critical to improve transparency in prisons and jails, identifying trends in custodial deaths that may warrant corrective action—such as failure to provide adequate medical care, mental health services, or safeguard prisoners from violence—and identifying specific facilities with outlying death rates.

"DOJ's failure to implement this law and to continue to voluntarily publish this information is a missed opportunity to prevent avoidable deaths."

The subcommittee's hearing on the report began at 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday in the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

Subcommittee chair Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) said in his opening statement during the hearing, "Today, after a 10-month bipartisan investigation, we can reveal that despite a clear charge from Congress to determine who is dying in prisons and jails across the country, where they are dying, and why they are dying, the Department of Justice is failing to do so.

"This failure undermines efforts to address the urgent humanitarian crisis happening behind bars across the country."

Ranking member Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) criticized the federal agencies for not being cooperative in answering the committee's requests.

One witness at the hearing lost her brother in the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison in Louisiana, and another witness lost her son in the Chatham County Detention Center in Georgia.

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