Washington, D.C. — Data on deaths in custody are crucial for holding law enforcement and correctional facilities across the country accountable. The absence of accurate and complete information on the number of people who die in custody and the nature of such deaths stifles policymakers’ ability to examine the underlying causes, let alone determine what can be done to lower the incidence. Congress and state legislatures should take the initiative to ensure the dependability of forthcoming data on deaths in custody, according to a new issue brief released by the Center for American Progress.
Roughly 1,000 people have been killed by law enforcement in the past year, according to estimates compiled by the Mapping Police Violence project. Although this figure is staggering, it is almost certainly an underestimate of the total number of civilian deaths in the custody of the criminal justice system, the full scope of which cannot be determined due to a lack of official data.
While the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) began collecting data on deaths in custody in 2020 under the Death in Custody Reporting Act (DCRA) of 2013, outstanding funding and compliance issues could compromise the quality of the impending data. Findings based on such flawed data would not help policymakers understand the causes of deaths in custody or reduce their occurrence, the primary purpose of the DCRA.
The new CAP issue brief underscores how critical actions can be taken to address these concerns about data on deaths in custody. Congress should appropriate the necessary funding for the DOJ Bureau of Justice Assistance to implement a methodology to search for and validate leads on deaths in custody. A similar approach enabled the DOJ Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) to identify nearly three times more arrest-related deaths than before as part of a broader effort that cost BJS less than $5 million between fiscal years 2014 and 2017.
For their part, state legislatures should look to compel all state and local law enforcement agencies to report DCRA data. States such as California, Texas, Maryland, and Tennessee already have laws that require all agencies to report data similar to those required by the DCRA, serving as models for other states to follow. Incentivizing DCRA compliance by all agencies would improve the quality of the data and bring about meaningful accountability in the criminal justice system.
“Our nation urgently needs to confront the scourge of police violence against communities of color. Yet for decades, the government has failed to track the number of deaths that occur in the justice system,” said Betsy Pearl, associate director for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center for American Progress. “While data collection alone can’t end systemic racism in our justice system and can’t bring back the countless lives lost, it’s essential for laying the groundwork to create real accountability and justice for all.”
For more information or to speak with an expert, please contact Claudia Montecinos at [email protected].