More people are killed by law enforcement in this country than in any other industrialized democracy in the world, but even the best data on civilian deaths at the hands of our criminal justice system is an underestimate. Most reports don’t take into account the staggering number of deaths in prisons and jails. That’s because there is no authoritative source of information on how many people die in custody, despite a federal law that is supposed to create just that — the Death in Custody Reporting Act (DCRA). Recently, the Justice Department made a wayward claim that DCRA restrains their power to collect data — but how much truth is there to that claim?
There’s a number of reasons DCRA isn’t working. Federal and state agencies are collecting flawed, unverified, incomplete data. And the data that’s being reported is neither timely nor transparent.
Also, the financial penalty that was meant to guard against this failure has never been levied against a state. The vast majority of states report incomplete data and face no consequences.
This problem runs so deep that even the form used to collect mortality data is inadequate and ill-designed, with far too few questions and lacking basic standardization that would allow for any meaningful analysis of the data in the future.
Without reliable, official data (or no data at all) on the statistics or circumstances of custodial deaths, we don’t have a place to start to examine and meaningfully address this crisis. Without the data, we won’t be able to comprehensively understand the role that excessive use of force by law enforcement and poor conditions at correctional facilities play in deaths in custody. The lack of data hurts all systemic efforts to improve conditions in our criminal justice system, including the broader push to bring accountability to law enforcement and put an end to police brutality.