Senators on both sides of the red and blue chasm were exasperated this week over the federal government’s fumbling of inmate death data. At a hearing of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chairman Jon Ossoff (D-GA) said, “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,” reports the Washington Post. “This failure undermines efforts to address the urgent humanitarian crisis ongoing behind bars across the country.” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) said, “DOJ has displayed a continued disdain for the subcommittee’s investigatory work and congressional oversight generally. … The department’s lack of transparency is unacceptable.”
The senators accused the department of failing to fully implement the legislation, which requires states and federal agencies to report deaths in custody or during the arrest process. The purpose is to reduce deaths and examine management actions related to the fatalities. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report identified nearly 1,000 deaths that potentially should have been reported to DOJ but were not. Also, GAO found that 70 percent of the records provided by states were missing at least one element required. Ossoff and Johnson had no sympathy, for Maureen Henneberg, a deputy assistant attorney general, who had the unenviable task of explaining the department’s failings. Henneberg explained that the Justice Department relies on states to provide information but that “the states have no leverage to compel … their local agencies to report the data. … It’s very concerning that there is the underreporting. And it was widespread across all the states.” Under the 2000 version of the reporting act, DOJ published 20 reports between 2005 and 2015. A 2013 version of the law “produced unintended consequences that adversely affected the Department’s ability to produce complete and accurate information on deaths in custody." she said. Justice has proposed a list of changes to the law, including allowing the department to collect data directly from local agencies instead of only from state officials.