Let’s talk about the injustice that is inherent in the cash bond system and how it disproportionately impacts people of color. Let’s discuss the criminal justice system’s inability to properly deal with those suffering from mental illness. Let’s talk about how those two things combined recently contributed to the death of a 61-year-old black grandmother who was arrested on a misdemeanor trespassing charge and held in jail for five months.
KSAT confirmed via court records that Janice Dotson-Stephens died in the custody of the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office Friday. She had been held in jail since July on a $300 bond.
Dotson-Stephens was arrested July 17 on a misdemeanor charge of trespassing on private property—her first brush with the law according to Bexar County Court records.
BCSO officials told KSAT that Dotson-Stephens had been held at the infirmary at the annex detention center and appeared to have died from natural causes.
The most shameful part about it is that most bail bond companies require a 10 percent payment to bail you out, meaning Dotson-Stephens could have been set free for just $30.
According to court records, Dotson-Stephens refused to be interviewed about her case the day after she was arrested and again on four straight days in late July, KSAT reports. She refused once again on Aug. 4.
On Aug. 8, a court-appointed attorney was assigned to her case, and when she refused to make a court appearance on Aug. 17, she was ordered to go through a psychological evaluation on Aug. 27.
Family members said they were unaware Dotson-Stephens was in jail. They thought she was being treated at a state hospital.
Dotson-Stephens’ daughter-in-law, Leticia Dotson, told KSAT that she and her husband were devastated to find out that Dotson-Stephens had died in jail.
“We just felt that she shouldn’t have died as a criminal in the jailhouse,” Dotson said. “She wasn’t a criminal. She had mental health illness.”
Dotson told the station that her mother-in-law had a history of mental illness. She said that in previous encounters with police, Dotson-Stephens was evaluated and transferred to the state hospital.
Dotson said that none of her mother-in-law’s family members had been contacted, something she thinks could have saved her life.
“If it changed and we had to bail her out before the process of getting her to the state hospital, we would have done that,” Dotson said.
“She had people who loved her and family who would have easily paid the $30 to get her out of jail if that’s what we had to do to take the next step,” she added.
Dotson told KSAT that she hopes the staff at the Bexar County Jail and at the state hospital will communicate in the future so this will not happen to other families.
“If your family has a mental illness, it’s not in their control,” she said. “She shouldn’t die as a criminal. They should die as, ‘This person had a mental illness and this is what happened.’”
Bexar County officials told KSAT on Monday that they couldn’t confirm if Dotson-Stephens was diagnosed with a mental health condition. They also said that she did not have a next of kin listed and that a transfer to the state hospital requires a court order.
The family told Refinery29 that it wasn’t unusual for them to go long stretches without hearing from the mother of four and grandmother of 10. She often became irrational when she was off her medication. Her father reportedly called the Bexar County Jail looking for her in August, but he was told she was not in their custody. The family feared that she had been released onto the streets and only found out her whereabouts when they were notified of her death.
The situation has caught the attention of California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris, who tweeted about it Tuesday morning.
“A woman was held in jail for six months because she couldn’t afford to pay her $300 bond. She just died in custody. This is tragic and exactly why we need to reform our money bail system,” Harris wrote.
In a separate email to Refinery29, Harris said: “The death of Janice Dotson-Stephens is a tragedy. No one should be held in jail for months before they have been convicted of a crime because they can’t afford to pay a few hundred dollars for bail. Our system of justice is supposed to be blind. It is an injustice that a person with money who has been accused of the same offense and can pay to get out of jail, but a person who can’t pay sits in jail with residual consequences, and in this case, tragically dies in jail. We must reform our broken money bail system.”
The Sheriff’s Office Criminal Investigations Division and the Bexar County Medical Examiner are investigating the death along with the Converse Police Department—which is involved in the investigation because of the Sandra Bland Act.
The Sandra Bland Act requires the Department of Public Safety to appoint a law enforcement agency other than the one operating the jail where an incarcerated person’s death occurred to investigate the death.
Dotson-Stephen’s family said she will be laid to rest on Dec. 28.