TThe Justice Department counted nearly 1,000 deaths shut upjails or during arrests in the last fiscal year, according to the results of a nearly year-long bipartisan investigation.
The 10-month investigation, described in a Sept. 20 report released jointly by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and the Government Accountability Office, focuses on whether the Department of Justice (DOJ) complied with the Custodial Death Reporting Act (DCRA ) at 2013. DCRA requires the department to collect data from states on deaths in close and close and submit a report to Congress that analyzes this data to propose solutions on how to reduce such deaths. The investigation found that the Justice Department missed the in-custody deaths of 990 people in fiscal year 2021, that the Justice Department’s data retention has been irregular since 2016, and that a report it is due to submit to Congress will not be completed until 2024 – eight years after its maturity.
In addition, much of the data collected by the DOJ is incomplete, the investigation found. 70 percent of the data DOJ has is missing at least one required set of information—race, ethnicity, age or gender, for example—and 40 percent are missing a description of the circumstances of the victim’s death. After a Senate hearing on the matter on Tuesday, the chairman of the subcommittee Senator John Ossoff, Democrat of Georgia, did not say whether the DOJ would face consequences for not following the law. He told TIME that “the first step is to pursue the facts and the truth. A hearing like this is part of the accountability process.
“We believe that collecting data on deaths in custody is a noble and necessary step toward a transparent and legitimate justice system,” Maureen Henneberg, the DOJ official who oversees the reporting of deaths in custody, told senators at the hearing. “As I know this committee appreciates, it is a major undertaking to gather this information from 56 states and territories, which in turn rely on reports from thousands of prisons, local jails and law enforcement agencies. But we strongly believe it’s worth the effort.”
“We’re talking about a pretty manageable amount of information here,” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., told Henneberg. “You failed completely. I mean you literally failed completely.
Family members of two men who died in prisons in Louisiana and Georgia also testified. Ossoff released a clip of a phone conversation between Belinda Maley and her son, Matthew Loughlin, who died at the Chatham County Detention Center in Georgia in 2014 of heart failure. In the clip, Loughlin can be heard telling her mother, “I’m coughing up blood and my legs are swollen. It hurts, mom… I’m going to die here.” Maley, a witness at the hearing, was visibly shaken by the length of the clip.
“I lost all my voicemails from him,” Mali said, “so the shock of hearing his voice again, in the worst possible way, is just too much.”
The DOJ argued that the gaps arose because of changes in the reporting process over the past decade. The DCRA was first enacted in 2000 and was later reauthorized in 2013 with additional provisions. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BSJ) was previously tasked with collecting this data and did so successfully in reports that were released to the public. But the newer iteration of DCRA tied certain grant funding for states to their compliance in providing complete data on deaths in custody to the DOJ. At the hearing, Henneberg told senators that tying data collection to grant funding caused two problems: it disincentivized states to provide complete data to avoid risking losing state funding, and because BJS, a neutral DOJ data collection arm , cannot be included in a program that imposes sanctions, the DOJ had to transfer data collection to the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) in 2016. This shift from one data collection agency to another, the investigation found, is where , where the DOJ failed to properly collect data on deaths in custody.
“The current process deserves to be reevaluated,” Henneberg said. “As a federal statistical agency, BJS is prohibited from using its data for purposes other than statistics or research. Although the 2013 DCRA was well-intentioned, it had unintended negative consequences.
Johnson acknowledged that both Congress and the bureaucracy could play a role in creating a flawed data collection process, but said those problems could be solved if the two data collection groups simply coordinated their efforts. Ossoff added that there was early evidence that the BJA was not collecting its data properly, but that the DOJ had failed to do anything about it.
“[DOJ is] have failed in their legal duty,” Ossoff told reporters after the hearing. “Because we did this investigation because we shined a light on this failure … now they’re saying, eight years after this law went into effect, they can’t successfully enforce it.”
Before the hearing ended, Vanessa Fano, whose brother Jonathan Fano died by suicide in Louisiana’s East Baton Rouge Parish Prison in 2017, bemoaned the trust her family had placed in the system. “We were constantly told to do things a certain way and that things were going right,” Fano said. “If we had disclosed how appalling the conditions in this facility were and how few actually received adequate care, we would have insisted on a different outcome.”
Andrea Armstrong, a Loyola University law professor who researches and maintains a database of deaths in custody in Louisiana, told senators that stories like Fano’s and Mali’s are why the federal government has accurate data. “Deaths in custody can signal broader challenges in a facility,” she said. “It is impossible to fix what is invisible.”
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