Officials: Texas leads nation in in-custody deaths, though precise numbers are unclear

Because of a 'difference in reporting requirements' between agencies, inmate deaths have likely not been accurately reported

William Patrick
Palestine Herald-Press

AUSTIN, Texas — As Texas heads for its deadliest year in local jail deaths, two state agencies are meeting to resolve a possible undercount of more than a dozen such deaths.

Even with a possible undercount, however, the state continues to lead the nation in in-custody deaths, accounting for 10 percent of all such deaths in the nation.

Representatives from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards and the Office of Attorney General met in October to compare notes and discuss why their lists of in-custody deaths don't match.

As of late September, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards' list contained 32 more deaths, reporting 83 in-custody deaths; meantime, the Office of Attorney General listed only 51.

Even so, more than a dozen inmate deaths from the OAG's report do not appear on the TCJS list, which is generally considered the official count.

That means instead of the 99 deaths reported by TCJS as of Nov. 15 of this year, the actual number of in-custody deaths by that date in 2019 would exceed 110.

Using the TCJS list alone, the state is on track to record about 115 deaths this year, but the actual number could rise to nearly 130.

Following the October meeting, both agencies cited differences in reporting for the different counts.

“The OAG and TCJS have met regarding the discrepancies in custodial death report numbers,” OAG spokesperson Kayleigh Date told the Herald-Press Monday. “Both agencies determined the incongruent number of reports is...due to a difference in reporting requirements.”

Officials from both agencies said the October meeting was the first in what will become standard practice.

TCJS Executive Director Brandon Wood told the Herald-Press that fact-checking was something the agencies dropped in recent years, due to a lack of personnel. With an increase in both budget and personnel this year, however, he said such communication was something the agencies needed to resume.

“At the meeting, we touched base, and re-introduced ourselves,” Wood said. “Although we can't control what is reported to the OAG, we will do more reviews in the future, and try and reconcile our numbers.”

When questioned by the newspaper in October about the inconsistencies, officials for both agencies noted a lack of inter-departmental communication, even though they both maintain employees in the same Austin office building.

By law, counties must report in-custody deaths to both the OAG and TCJS. Failure to report a death is a class “B” misdemeanor, punishable by up to 180 days in jail, and a $2,000 fine per-offense.

Neither the OAG, nor the TCJS, however, pursue or investigate such violations.

If county officials fail to report an in-custody death, it is the responsibility of that county's district attorney to ensure the report is filed, and determine any disciplinary action.

Wood said his TCJS will continue to provide clear, accurate counts of all county in-custody deaths.

“TCJS does a very good job in keeping these reports, and we will continue to ensure our data is correct,” he said.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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