Report: Nearly 1,000 prison deaths went undocumented by DOJ

Politics

(NewsNation) — The United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report Tuesday stating that the Department of Justice (DOJ) undercounted nearly 1,000 deaths in U.S. prisons, jails or during arrests in the last fiscal year.

According to the findings, the DOJ not only missed the deaths of 990 people in custody during the 2021 fiscal year, but the data that was scavenged was not complete. The investigation stated that 70% of the data was missing at least one required piece of information — such as race, ethnicity, age or gender.

Additionally, another 40% of the data gathered was missing important descriptions involving the nature of the victims’ deaths.

The research is the result of a 10-month bipartisan investigation evaluating the DOJ’s compliance with the Death in Custody Reporting Act (DCRA) of 2013, which requires states to report to the Attorney General information regarding the death of any person who is in jail.

“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,” said Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., the subcommittee’s chairman during the Tuesday hearing. “This failure undermines efforts to address the urgent humanitarian crisis ongoing behind bars across the country.”

The panel’s top Republican, Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, was also in on the reprimand, adding to his opening statement, “(The) DOJ has displayed a continued disdain for the subcommittee’s investigatory work and congressional oversight generally. … The department’s lack of transparency is unacceptable.”

Deputy Assistant Attorney General Maureen Henneberg fielded senators’ questions and chalked up the department’s current apparent oversights to systematic failures. “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,” she said.

Henneberg went on to call incarceration fatalities “a profoundly important issue, which is of great consequence to the legitimacy and integrity of the criminal and juvenile justice systems, to the lives of the people who come into contact with the justice system, and to the family members and loved ones of those who have died in custody.”

According to the investigation, the report the DOJ is required to hand in to Congress will not be complete until 2024 — eight years past its due date.

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