The Death in Custody Reporting Act, which was passed by Congress in 2014, requires law enforcement agencies in South Carolina and around the country to provide firm data about the number of suspects and inmates who die each year while in custody. Despite this law, information remains nebulous. After comparing data from public sources with information provided by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, researchers from the Leadership Conference Education Fund concluded that federal authorities likely undercounted custody deaths by almost 1,000 in 2021 alone.
A worsening problem
Law enforcement agencies may be reluctant to share this information because the little data available suggests that the problem is getting worse. The number of people who died while in local jails increased by 5% to approximately 1,200 in 2019, and 77% of them had not been convicted and were still working with criminal defense attorneys when they died. The data law enforcement agencies do submit is often missing a key piece of information. When GAO officials were pressed on this issue, they admitted that 70% of the reports they receive from local law enforcement do not include details about how suspects or inmates died.
The provisions of the DCRA require federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to collect and submit data about all of the people who die each year while being detained or transported, and the DOJ is required to submit an annual report to Congress with suggestions about ways the information could be used to improve policies and procedures in police and corrections departments. The law was passed almost a decade ago, and Congress has yet to receive one of these reports. When information is made available, it is often out of date. The Bureau of Justice Statistics recently released information about the number of people who died after interacting with federal law enforcement, but the data it was based on was collected three years ago.
Lack of accountability
Politicians often talk about the need for law enforcement reform, but little seems to happen even after laws like the DCRA are passed. State law enforcement agencies can lose up to 10% of their federal funding for not submitting data concerning suspect and inmate deaths, and perhaps they would be more transparent if this threat was taken seriously.