Senate report finds DOJ undercounted 2021 deaths in custody by nearly 1,000

The Justice Department undercounted the number of deaths last year in prisons and during arrests by nearly 1,000, according to a report by a U.S. Senate panel.

The Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and the Government Accountability Office said that there were at least 990 people who died in prisons, jails or in the process of an arrest who weren’t factored into the DOJ’s data monitoring the incidents.

“DOJ failed to implement effective data collection methodology, despite internal warnings from the DOJ Office of the Inspector General and the Bureau of Justice Statistics. DOJ’s failures were preventable,” the report reads following its 10-month investigation into the matter.

The lapse in data stemmed from a change in which the agency had the task of collecting custodial death information.

Tracking these deaths is required by the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013, which reauthorized a law first passed in 2000.

The law stipulated that states could lose a percentage of their federal law-enforcement funding if they didn’t report their death data to the DOJ. However, the department said in 2016 that the Bureau of Justice Statistics wasn’t allowed to run a data collection program where penalties could be involved.    

In response, the department transferred responsibility from the BJS to the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA).

But the BJA didn’t start collecting data until fiscal 2020, and the Department of Justice has yet to publicly report on any of the data that the agency has collected, the report stated.    

The report also found that the BJA’s death in custody data was incomplete.

For instance, 70% of records were missing at least one legally required field, such as about gender, age or race of the deceased. Along with that, 40% of BJA’s records don’t list the circumstances surrounding the death.

When the law passed in 2013, the DOJ was told to send a complete report to Congress by 2016. The department doesn’t expect that report to be completed until 2024.

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