Congress presses DOJ to improve jail reporting system after Reuters report

Peter Eisler and Jason Szep
·4-min read
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., speaks during a U.S.House Judiciary Committee, in Washington
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., speaks during a U.S.House Judiciary Committee, in Washington

By Peter Eisler and Jason Szep

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congressional leaders are calling on the U.S. Department of Justice to strengthen its tracking of deaths in local jails following a Reuters investigation that identified thousands of inmate fatalities and spurred criticism from human rights groups.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, said fixing the DOJ's broken system for tracking inmate deaths “is critical to identifying problems in particular jails that must be addressed.”

Reuters documented 7,571 deaths at more than 500 jails from 2008-2019; two-thirds of those inmates – close to 5,000 – were awaiting trial and had not been convicted of the charges they faced. Many remained jailed because they could not afford bail.

“This report underscores why it’s urgent that the U.S. radically transform its pretrial systems,” said Laura Pitter, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s U.S. Program. “It is no longer enough to say things have to change – it is an actual emergency.”

Pitter called Reuters’ findings “shocking but not surprising,” given that pretrial detention has been examined before, including by Human Rights Watch. The difference, she said: “We didn’t have access to a lot of the data Reuters was able to gather.”

To read the Reuters report, Dying Inside, click https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-jails-deaths

Unlike state and federal prisons, which hold convicted criminals, jails typically are locally run, usually by county sheriffs or municipal police departments, and designed for short stays while inmates await trial or serve relatively brief sentences for lesser crimes.

In 2000, Congress passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act, requiring the Department of Justice to collect inmate mortality data from each of the nation’s 3,000-plus local jails. The Justice Department never has released jail-by-jail data – only state and national figures. That leaves the public, local officials and government agencies with little ability to identify jails with extraordinary death rates.

Reuters filed more than 1,500 public records requests to compile inmate death data for all jails with average populations of 750 or more inmates, and the 10 largest jails in nearly every state. The data showed a 35% increase in death rates overall from 2010 to 2019, including an 8% rise since 2016, the last year for which the Justice Department’s national data is available. Behind the trend, Reuters identified a chronically underfunded jail system, subject to scant oversight, even as inmate populations have grown sicker and more damaged by mental illness and substance abuse.

U.S. Representative Bobby Scott, the Virginia Democrat who co-sponsored the 2000 reporting law, said the Justice Department “has just ignored” a 2014 update of the law that includes provisions to make jail-by-jail death data publicly available and restrict federal grant money when jails fail to report deaths.

Since the Reuters report, the Justice Department has declined repeated requests to discuss the status of the data collection program. Reuters also sought comment from two senior Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee; they did not respond.

In an email last month, a Justice spokesman said the department has begun gathering inmate death data under a revamped collection program, but there are “no plans” to resume publication of the mortality reports issued by Democratic and Republican administrations for two decades.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, the Senate sponsor of the 2014 reporting law update, said Congress may need to consider restricting the Justice Department’s funding if the law is not fully implemented.

“The problem is becoming worse, not better, and the key to solving any problem is understanding it,” said Blumenthal, citing the Reuters finding that jail death rates have continued to rise.

The report “is a stark reminder of the tremendous toll that even short-term incarceration has on our society,” said Brandon Buskey, deputy director of the Criminal Law Reform Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. Understanding that toll requires quality data on deaths in custody, he added, and “we should be outraged that our federal government refuses to tell the public these basic facts.”

(Reporting by Peter Eisler and Jason Szep in Washington. Editing by Ronnie Greene)