CIVIL RIGHTS REPORT RELEASE: Groups Chronicle Failures of Reporting Deaths in Custody
WASHINGTON – The Leadership Conference Education Fund (The Education Fund) and the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) released a new report, “A Matter of Life and Death: The Importance of the Death in Custody Reporting Act,” which analyzes past efforts to implement the Death in Custody Reporting Act (DCRA) and how key aspects of requirements have changed with each reauthorization. This report makes specific recommendations about how the Department of Justice can fully implement DCRA with the administrative tools currently available.
The stakes are high, and we have more on the line with DCRA than simply good data and research. Despite known structural failures, proof of systemic inequality, public engagement, and bipartisan legislation from Congress, the U.S. government has not been able to protect the rights and health of its people. And the situation is getting worse.
Key findings from the report include:
- The U.S. government does not know how many people die in the custody of the criminal-legal system each year.
- The data collected to date is incomplete, inaccurate, and opaque — despite transparency mandated by DCRA.
- More than eight years ago, Congress passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act, requiring the DOJ to collect and publish a study using the data; as of 2023, it has yet to complete the study on how to reduce deaths in custody.
- In 2016, the Obama administration published a plan to fully implement the law and better collect and report information about deaths that occur in custody; that plan was later shelved and replaced with far weaker policies.
- Current DCRA reporting structures are inadequate. Individual states and nongovernmental groups are gathering far more data using Freedom of Information Act requests, open records requests, and open-source data.
The DOJ can implement several changes to dramatically improve the accessibility and usefulness of DCRA reporting, including making use of the compliance mechanism built into the DCRA statute, redesigning collection forms to more robustly collect data, producing studies that address DCRA-mandated research questions, and committing to more timely data reporting.
More detailed recommendations are included in the report. Click here to download the full report.
Audio of today’s media briefing about the report is available here.
Bree Spencer, interim senior program director, justice, at The Leadership Conference Education Fund, said: “People are dying during incarceration, detention, and in police custody every day, yet we have no idea who they are, how they die, or how best to prevent future deaths. Congress passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act to solve this problem and reduce preventable deaths, but agencies are failing to implement it. We hope this report will help inform how the Justice Department implements DCRA and provides the oversight needed to reduce in-custody deaths.”
David Janovsky, policy analyst, Project on Government Oversight (POGO), said: “The Justice Department has the tools it needs to collect data on deaths in custody, and it knows how to design a program that makes full use of its authority. It’s past time for the department to get out of its own way and collect accurate, complete, and transparent data on deaths in custody so it can study how to reduce them.”
Professor Andrea Armstrong, Loyola University New Orleans, College of Law, said: “Deaths in custody are an urgent matter of public concern and yet, jails and prisons are not transparent about how and why these deaths occurred. This is critical information, not just for families of the decedents, but also for the public at large. It is impossible to fix what is hidden and invisible. Patterns in deaths behind bars may also signal broader challenges in the prison, jail, or detention center. The first step towards reducing future deaths is acknowledging and understanding why people behind bars are dying.”
Representative Bobby Scott (D. Va.), said: “The Death in Custody Reporting Act was enacted to simply require States to report quarterly information to the Attorney General about the death of any person detained by law enforcement, in the process of arrest, or in custody. That data would include any individual incarcerated in a state or federal jail, prison, or juvenile facility. An accurate, nationwide count on the number of individuals dying while in the custody of law enforcement is critical in assessing the scope of a problem that persists in this country. People continue to die at the hands of law enforcement. Policymakers do not have access to accurate government data on the nature and circumstances of these deaths. Instead, the public and lawmakers must rely on the work of non-profit organizations and the media, and often must make policy on anecdotes, rumors, and misinformation. Despite the tremendous work of investigative journalists and these non-profit organizations in cataloging deaths in custody, there is still an incomplete picture of the problem. The Department cannot abdicate its duty to the public in this matter any longer.”
The Leadership Conference Education Fund builds public will for federal and state policies that promote and protect the civil and human rights of all persons in the United States. The Education Fund’s campaigns empower and mobilize advocates around the country to push for progressive change in the United States. It was founded in 1969 as the education and research arm of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. For more information on The Education Fund, visit civilrights.org/edfund/.
The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that investigates and exposes waste, corruption, abuse of power, and when the government fails to serve the public or silences those who report wrongdoing. We champion reforms to achieve a more effective, ethical, and accountable federal government that safeguards constitutional principles. For more information on POGO, visit https://www.pogo.org/.