A bipartisan Senate investigation has revealed the U.S. Department of Justice undercounted almost 1,000 deaths of people in prison or jail.
The information was revealed by a 25-page report titled “Uncounted Deaths in America’s Prisons & Jails: How the Department of Justice Failed to Implement the Death in Custody Reporting Act” released on Sept. 20.
The 10-month-long investigation that produced the report was a joint effort by the Permanent Subcommittee On Investigations (PSI) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO), TIME reported.
Its purpose was to verify whether the DOJ has complied with the Death in Custody Reporting Act (DCRA). The DCRA requires the DOJ to collect data on inmate deaths and report them to Congress, which will use it to find solutions to help mitigate the number of deaths in custody.
“DOJ’s failed implementation of DCRA 2013 undermined the effective, comprehensive, and accurate collection of custodial death data,” the report states. “Of the 990 uncounted deaths, 341 were prison deaths disclosed on states’ public websites and 649 were arrest-related deaths disclosed in a reliable, public database.”
The report further states the DOJ omitted information that “was already in the public domain.”
Officials from the DOJ placed some of the blame for the miscounting on the changes to the law, which was passed in 2000 and reauthorized in 2013 with additional provisions.
“The enactment of DCRA of 2013 had several unintended consequences that have degraded and hindered the Department’s ability to produce complete and accurate information,” the DOJ said, according to the National Criminal Justice Association (NCJA).
The department further claimed it “achieved near 100 percent response rates and was producing accurate and complete statistical information regarding deaths in local jails and state prisons” before the law was revised.
Georgia Democrat Sen. Jon Ossoff heads the PSI. He told TIME “step one is pursuit of the facts and of the truth. A hearing like this is part of the process of accountability.”
DOJ official Maureen Henneberg, who leads the counting, said it was a “major undertaking” to count all of the prison deaths.
“We believe that gathering data on deaths in custody is a noble and necessary step towards a transparent and legitimate justice system,” Henneberg told senators at the hearing. “As I know this committee appreciates, it is a major undertaking to gather this information from 56 states and territories, who in turn rely on reports from thousands of prisons, local jails, and law enforcement agencies. But we firmly believe that it is well worth the effort.”
Ossoff didn’t accept Hennesberg’s explanation as to why the undercounting occurred.
“[DOJ is] failing to fulfill their lawful obligation,” Ossoff told reporters after the senate hearing. “Because we conducted this investigation, because we have been shining a light on this failure… they’re now saying, eight years after that law was enacted, that they cannot successfully implement it.”
PHOTO: Maximum security inmates at Mississippi State Penitentiary Unit 17, July 12, 2002, in Parchman, Miss. One of 12 Black Mississippi men in their 20s is an inmate in the state prison system, according to census and corrections statistics. (AP Photo/Rogelio Solis, File)