Texas Deaths in Pretrial Custody Soared Over Past Decade: Study

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The number of individuals who died in jails or police custody in Texas has climbed since 2005, reaching “record” levels in the past three years, according to figures compiled by the Texas Justice Initiative (TJI).

More Texas inmates died in jail during 2018 while awaiting trial than in any year since 2007, said TJI, a nonprofit organization that collects, analyzes, publishes and provides oversight for criminal justice data throughout Texas.

About 36 percent of the total 255 deaths in jails or in police custody during 2018 were traced to  homicides, followed by suicide and “natural causes,” TJI  researchers found.

The death toll of Texas individuals in custody has been steadily increasing over the past decade. In 2005, the first year for which researchers obtained figures, some 190 individuals died in custody. The figure spiked to 286 in 2015, then decreased slightly until it resumed an upward curve, with 229 deaths recorded in 2017.

Overall, 9,370 individuals have died in Texas prisons, jails, police custody or private detention facilities since 2005, with 2018 recording the highest toll over the decade, at 774 deaths.

The deaths of individuals awaiting trial accounted for 13 per cent of all Texas deaths in custody since 2005, reported TJI.

The data analysis did not offer a reason for the increase, but TJI executive director Eva Ruth Moravec said the database was released to coincide with efforts to discuss bail reform in Texas and nationwide.

Some 47 percent of the deaths in custody from natural causes during 2018 were of individuals aged between 50 and 69, prompting researchers to suggest that pre-screening for heart conditions “could go far in preventing deaths among those held in custody for short periods of time.”

Similarly, noting that suicide or drug and alcohol abuse accounted for a significant number of deaths of younger individuals, the study asked whether more attention to the safety of those admitted in custody who were “at risk of self-harm” could reduce the number of pretrial fatalities.

Since 2005,  at least half of all deaths of individuals awaiting trial occurred within the first eight days of custody.

The data suggested that deaths were not necessarily related to specific jail conditions, such as poorly staffed rural locations. The largest concentration of Texas pretrial deaths was in fact in the populous Dallas county.

Jail deaths appear to be a growing concern around the nation. Although the majority of the 2,800 local jail jurisdictions (80 percent) reported no deaths in custody during 2014, the last year for which figures are available, the total number of deaths is increasing.

Some 1,053 deaths occurred in jails nationwide in 2014, an 8 percent increase over the previous year, amounting to the largest number of jail fatalities reported by the Deaths in Custody Reporting Program since 2008, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).

BJS began collecting annual statistics for deaths in state prisons and jails in 2000, but it did not break down the fatalities for those held in pretrial custody. In 2014, more than one third of the 1,053 jail deaths—or 40 percent—occurred within the first seven days of admission.

The suicide rate in jails was also the highest seen since 2000, accounting for over 35 percent of all inmate deaths in  custody—an increase of 13 percent over 2013, BJS said.

The average national daily jail population during 2014 was a little over 750,000 inmates.

The largest number of jail deaths in 2014 occurred in California (145), followed by Georgia (83) and Virginia (48).

TJI’s Texas database has been posted in an interactive dashboard, allowing online users to drill down  further into the causes and locations of the deaths, as well as age, racial and other demographic details.

Additional Reading: Vera Report Outlines ‘Damaging’ Pretrial Detention Effects

The dashboard is available here.

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