UT Austin Website Promotes Transparency on Deaths in Texas State Custody

AUSTIN, Texas — A new interactive, online database provides the public full access to records on 6,913 deaths that have occurred in Texas state custody since 2005. The database, launched by The University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis (IUPRA), is designed to provide transparency of the state’s justice system and inform public policy.

The 11-year data set includes information about deaths in police interactions, jails and prisons, along with the deceased’s name, demographic information, time and place of death, cause of death, length of time in custody and a narrative submitted by the local custodian, such as the local sheriff or prison director. The website launched July 27 and is accessible at http://texasjusticeinitiative.org.

The Texas Justice Initiative was created by Amanda Woog, a postdoctoral fellow in IUPRA, an institution developed in 2010 through collaborative efforts with the Texas Legislative Black Caucus to conduct and promote the production of policy-relevant research aimed at enhancing the lives of African Americans and other communities of color.

“The goal of the initial launch is to make this data and some early findings available to researchers, policymakers, stakeholders and those directly impacted by Texas’ criminal justice system,” said Woog, who received her Juris Doctor from the UT School of Law. “Too many people are dying, and it’s going to require a collaborative effort to help identify problems and come up with solutions.”  

The interactive site allows users to filter through categories, such as demographics or cause of death, and isolate data sets in order to answer their own research questions. Woog reported some of her findings in a Texas Custodial Death Report:

  • Latinos accounted for 28 percent of the deaths in custody, black people accounted for 30 percent of the deaths in custody, and white people accounted for 42 percent.
  • More than 1,900 of those who died had not been convicted of a crime.
  • Natural causes or illness, suicide and justifiable homicide were the leading causes of death, accounting for 70, 11 and 8 percent of deaths, respectively.
  • Justifiable homicide was the leading cause of nonnatural deaths for both black and Latino men, accounting for 30 and 34 percent of nonnatural deaths, respectively.
  • Suicide was the leading cause of nonnatural deaths for whites, accounting for nearly 50 percent of nonnatural deaths for both white men and women.
  • Alcohol or drug intoxication was the leading cause of nonnatural deaths for black and Latina women, accounting for 37 and 32 percent of nonnatural deaths, respectively.

“The unprecedented compilation of data will for the first time permit comparison among jurisdictions’ incidents of custodial deaths over time. Combined with a readily usable format, these contributions put the Texas Justice Initiative on the national vanguard of open data and build accountability and trust between law enforcement and the communities they police,” said UT law professor Jennifer Laurin, a member of the project’s advisory committee with Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer in the LBJ School of Public Affairs, and Kali Gross, a former UT Austin professor of African and African diaspora studies who is now at Wesleyan University.

California is the only other state to offer such a resource; last year its Attorney General’s Office debuted Open Justice, which included broad information about the state’s deaths in custody. The Texas Justice Initiative includes both identifying and narrative information for each death to encourage research into complexities in the criminal justice system, Woog said.

As a requirement under Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Article 49.18, the person in charge of the custodial institution, such as the sheriff or facility director, must file the four-page custodial death report within 30 days of the incident. This information is considered public record and available upon request.