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October 16, 2023 Civil Rights and Social Justice

Failure to report deaths in custody impedes study of trends

Speaking with a sense of urgency, civil rights and social justice experts said they need help to  enforce the law that requires states to report deaths that occur while individuals are held in police custody.

The recent webinar “Deaths in Custody, A National Crisis” was sponsored by the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice.

The recent webinar “Deaths in Custody, A National Crisis” was sponsored by the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice.

“Today as we sit here, we do not know how many people are dying at the hands of law enforcement in the arrest phase nor in our criminal legal system in our jails and prisons,” said Dr. Roger Mitchell, Jr., chair of the Department of Pathology at Howard University, during the webinar, “Deaths in Custody, A National Crisis,” sponsored by the American Bar Association Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice.

Mitchell said the Bureau of Justice Assistance is not, “enforcing the law to make sure we have that data.” According to Mitchell, an estimated 1.2 million people are currently incarcerated. Based on Bureau of Justice Statistics, between 2001 and 2019 more than 65,000 prisoners died while in state custody. BJS statistics also show 7,000 individuals died while in federal prison; however, there is no data available on deaths from 2020-2023.

“As public health provider(s), we know we can prevent what we’re counting and if we’re not counting it, there is no way in the world we can prevent it,” said Mitchell, a former chief medical examiner for Washington, D.C.

Panelists agreed the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013 is not being enforced. “The idea is to get all of the information in one place,” said Congressman Bobby Scott, who introduced the legislation. “So, it could be researched by the Department of Justice so we could find out what’s going on.” Scott said the data is important so that those doing research can discover patterns in the types of deaths that are occurring.

“Frankly, it’s about time for the Department of Justice to start doing its job,” Scott said.

Tanya Clay House, executive vice president for campaigns and advocacy at the Hip Hop Caucus, said the caucus is educating the public about the issue of deaths in custody and bringing the issue and solutions to the forefront of conversations. 

Panelists agreed that establishing a checkbox on the standard US death certificate for death in custody could help shed some light into the issue. The Centers for Disease Control monitors deaths in the country.

“The reason why we know that maternal mortality is an issue surrounding Black women in this country is because there is a check box on the US standard death certificate,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell said the death certificate is a “robust document” that provides vital information, but it currently is not being used to track deaths in custody. “This is not hard stuff,” Mitchell said, adding that there are people ready to analyze the data, if only the data was available.

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