Senators slam DOJ for poor reporting of in-custody deaths

Senators on both sides of the red and blue chasm appeared to almost turn purple in exasperation on Tuesday as they criticized the government’s fumbling about inmate death data.

The scene was an audience in the Standing Senate Subcommittee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Investigations. Its title highlighted the aggravation of the panel’s Democratic and Republican leaders: “Uncounted Deaths in America’s Prisons and Jails: How the Department of Justice Failed to Implement the Death in Custody Reporting Act.”

“Despite a clear charge from Congress to determine who dies in jails and jails across the country, where they die, and why they die, the Justice Department is failing to do so,” said Sen. Jon Ossoff (D- Ga.), the chairman of the subcommittee. “This failure undermines efforts to address the urgent humanitarian crisis unfolding behind bars across the country.”

Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.), the top Republican on the top panel, added in his opening statement, “The DOJ has displayed a continued disregard for the investigative work of the subcommittee and the oversight of Congress generally. … The department’s lack of transparency is unacceptable.

They accused the department of failing to fully implement the legislation, which requires states and federal agencies to report deaths in custody or during the arrest process. The objective is to reduce the number of fatalities and to review management measures related to fatalities.

But this goal is frustrated by missing and incomplete information.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) Report released at the hearing “identified nearly 1,000 deaths that potentially should have been reported to the DOJ but were not. In addition, the GAO found that 70% of records provided by states were missing at least one item required.”

It could have been just another Capitol Hill hearing on the shortcomings of the agency — but for the traumatic subject matter, the tearful and hesitant statements of witnesses who testified about relatives who died while incarcerated, and a voice from the grave.

Prior to their testimony, Ossoff broadcast a taped telephone conversation between Belinda Maley, one of the witnesses, and his son, Matthew Loflin. He died in 2014 of congestive heart failure while locked up in Savannah, Georgia on non-violent drug charges.

“I coughed up blood and my feet are swollen. It hurts, mom,” Loflin told her mom. “I will die here.”

Maley began his testimony by asking senators to “imagine the heartache of watching your only child suffer in prison.” Their audible dismay indicated that the senators had done it.

Ossoff and Johnson, however, had no sympathy for Maureen Hennebergassistant deputy attorney general, who had the unenviable task of explaining the failings of the department to skeptical and questioning senators.

Ossoff greeted her by saying that “the debacle, the decline in the department’s ability to collect and produce high integrity data, unfolded over several years in multiple jurisdictions.”

Henneberg explained that the Justice Department relies on states to provide information, but that “states have no way to compel … their local agencies to report the data. … It is very worrying that there is under-reporting. And it was prevalent in every state.

She called deaths in custody “a profoundly important issue, with far-reaching consequences for the legitimacy and integrity of the criminal and juvenile justice systems, for the lives of those who come into contact with the justice system, and for family members and loved ones”. some of those who died in custody.

But this deep question fell to the whims of the federal bureaucracy.

Under the 2000 version of the reporting law, Henneberg said, the Justice Department released 20 reports between 2005 and 2015 that “provided a wide variety of statistics and charts related to cause of death, characteristics of the deceased and the characteristics of the establishments”. But things changed after a 2013 version of the law took effect, she added, and “produced unintended consequences that undermined the Department’s ability to produce complete and accurate information. on deaths in custody.

For example, the 2013 legislation penalizes states that fail to adequately report deaths, even though Henneberg said most “state governments cannot compel local government agencies to report to them.” Cutting state funding, she said, “as a penalty for incomplete reporting, may actually result in an unintended consequence of reducing the amount of funds available and needed to improve reporting to the statewide”.

The justice proposed a list of changes to the law, including allowing the department to collect data directly from local agencies instead of just state officials.

Ossoff and Johnson seemed exasperated by Henneberg’s indirect responses. The president complained “I don’t get a specific answer” to his question about what the judiciary has done “to fix and improve its data collection methodology”.

When Johnson asked why there was no “smooth handover” when responsibility for data collection moved from one justice bureau to another, Henneberg again deflected, saying “this department focuses on fixing and improving data collection”.

Johnson interrupted: “You focused on [it] how many years? You completely failed. I mean, literally, you completely failed. It’s not that difficult. Within months, he added, the GAO “gave us better statistics than the Department of Justice” over a period of years.

“The crisis in America’s jails, jails and detention centers is ongoing and unconscionable,” he said. “The Justice Department and Congress must treat this as the constitutional rights emergency that it is.”

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