Inside Jail

With a record number of people dying in Texas jails, the state is  undercounting in-custody deaths. State officials are trying to fix discrepancies in the lists of deaths compiled by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards and Office of Attorney General. 

Texas is heading for nearly 115 jail deaths this year; considering a likely undercount, the news for the Lone Star State is even more grim.

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards' list of jail fatalities, generally considered the official count, omits about a dozen deaths listed by the Texas Attorney General. Including the fatalities listed by the AG's Office, custodial deaths in Texas will tally almost 130 in 2019.

Either way, Texas, which accounts for more than 10 percent of all U.S. jail deaths, will record its deadliest year ever, an increase in deaths over last year of at least 15 percent.

The Commission on Jail Standards and Attorney General both have offices at 300 W. 15th St., in Austin. Given the proximity of the two agencies, their failure to compile a uniform count raises the question of whether state government can start solving a problem it's not even competent enough to measure.

At any rate, to blame budget cuts for the failure of the two agencies to cross-check their lists, as one official did, is ludicrous.

By mid-November, the list from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards totaled 99 in-custody deaths. The AG's list reported a far smaller number, but still included cases not on the TCJS list.

By law, Texas counties must report in-custody deaths to both agencies. Obviously, some counties did not. Other counties might not have reported to either agency.

To their credit, the Commission on Jail Standards and Office of Attorney General last month agreed to meet regularly, after the Herald-Press noted discrepancies in their lists. 

Officials from each agency, however, should not limit joint meetings to fact checking. In the real world, getting an accurate count of jail deaths should not take endless meetings by state bureaucrats. It should take two people – one from each agency – about two hours to get it done. 

The totals could merge into a single count, after officials review investigations by the Texas Rangers and establish whether the two lists have been using the same criteria.

Meetings between the Commission on Jail Standards and Office of Attorney General should focus on the heavy lifting: Finding ways to oversee Texas' 250 local jails, bolster enforcement of state standards and laws governing their operations, and ensure all counties report custodial deaths.

At issue are not only violations of state standards, but also criminal offenses related to laws rarely enforced. Falsifying observation logs, for example, amounts to tampering with government records, a state jail felony; not reporting in-custody deaths to the state is a misdemeanor.

Without oversight and enforcement, prisoners without convictions will continue to die in large numbers, despite commendable legislative reforms such as the Sandra Bland Act of 2017.

Working together, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards and Office of Attorney General offer could accomplish something amazing: Making state government smart enough to, not only measure custodial deaths, but also save some lives. 

Recommended for you