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Feds Lack Data on Deaths in Custody Despite Transparency Law

The U.S. government doesn't know how many people die in law enforcement custody or while imprisoned each year, says a new report by The Leadership Conference Education Fund and the Project on Government Oversight, reports NPR. Citing data from the federal Government Accountability Office, the report says the federal government likely undercounted deaths in custody in 2021 alone by nearly 1,000 compared with other public data sources, despite the 2014 federal Death in Custody Reporting Act (DCRA) that aims at compelling law enforcement agencies' transparency. Under DCRA, the Justice Department is supposed to collect state and local data on deaths. This remains a problem even as federal agencies say they are cracking down on the lack of transparency in policing. Last year, President Biden signed an executive order to advance accountability in policing and criminal justice practices. "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," said Bree Spencer of The Leadership Conference Education Fund. "Congress passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act to solve this problem and reduce preventable deaths, but agencies are failing to implement it.


The DCRA requires every law enforcement agency at the state, territory, and federal levels to collect data on the deaths of people transported, detained, or arrested by law enforcement and those who died while incarcerated. This information is supposed to be submitted to the Justice Department with details on the time and location of the death, the decedent's personal information, the circumstances surrounding the death, and the agency involved. States that don't comply face a punishment of up to a 10 percent reduction to their awards under the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program, the primary source of federal funding to state and local jurisdictions. The Justice Department must report to Congress on how the DCRA data can be used to establish policies and practices that prevent in-custody deaths. There has been no report filed so far. The Bureau of Justice Statistics did release three-year-old data on people who had died during interactions with federal criminal justice authorities. Additionally, last September, the Government Accountability Office testified that 70 percdent of the records states submitted to the Justice Department "were missing at least one required element—e.g., a description of the individual's death." The report urged DOJ to consider redesigning collection forms to bring in more robust data and committing to more timely reporting, among other recommendations to improve accessibility and usefulness.

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