Bail

Texas Woman, 61, Dies in Jail After Sitting There for Months over $300 Bail Order

She had a history of mental illness, and was arrested for misdemeanor trespassing in July.

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Janice Dotson-Stephens
Bexar County Jail

Janice Dotson-Stephens, 61, died in jail on Friday after living there for months because nobody paid $30 to a bondsman to cover her bail.

Dotson-Stephens was arrested in Bexar County, Texas, in July for criminal trespassing, a misdemeanor. Her bail was set at $300. But she didn't arrange for payment ($30 if she had gone through a bail bondsman), and according to court records she was simply refusing to talk or be interviewed.

A psychiatric evaluation was ordered in August, but she remained in jail until she died, reportedly of natural causes, in the jail infirmary on Friday afternoon.

On Monday, family members said they didn't even know she was in jail or they would have come bail her out. Dotson-Stephens, it turns out, does have a history of mental illness. She's been arrested before, her daughter-in-law told KSAT12 in San Antonio, but they always transferred her to a state hospital after evaluation rather than prosecuting her. That's actually where her family thought she was all this time.

A spokesperson for Bexar County told the station that Dotson-Stephens hadn't indicated a next of kin, and transferring her to the state hospital requires a court order. That response raises the question of why they didn't have her next of kin, given her apparent previous run-ins with police. And what happened after she was ordered to a psychiatric evaluation?

Her curious imprisonment and death also implicates the thoughtless, mechanized way that court systems make pretrial detention decisions and why exactly so many criminal justice advocates have been pushing for reduced dependency on (or the complete elimination of) cash bail. Why was any money demanded of Dotson-Stephens in order to be free from jail at all? She didn't have a record and her previous arrests were all tied to mental health issues and handled outside of the criminal justice system. Did a judge or magistrate consider her a flight risk? In all likelihood she was never actually considered at all and her pretrial detention was the result of a clockwork system where courts simply assign dollar amounts to various crimes (even low-level ones) and tell people to pay up or rot in jail for days, weeks, even months.

In this case, poor communication kept Dotson-Stephens in jail, but there are thousands of Americans stuck in pretrial detention in jails across the country. They haven't been convicted yet, but they're essentially serving time because they lack the money to pay for their freedom. The end result here is that poorer people frequently end up pleading guilty and accepting harsher punishments for crimes than they would have otherwise simply to get out of jail, and end up getting saddled with a record and other bad consequences.

And in Dotson-Stephens' case, the thoughtless mechanisms of Bexar County's pretrial system highlights exactly why these same criminal justice reform advocates want to see bolstered resources available in pretrial services. They want in place ways to intervene early to help people who have drug addictions find resources to help them when they get arrested. And they want the courts to react more quickly when somebody with mental health issues like Dotson-Stephens ends up in police custody. Jails are generally not well equipped to deal with mental health issues. And yet, many get shoved into cells, often for minor crimes just as what happened with Dotson-Stephens, and avoidable tragedy is the end result.

The circumstances behind Dotson-Stephens' death are now under investigation by county officials and the police department of the nearby town of Converse, Texas. An interesting detail that explains the Converse Police Department's involvement: People may recall the suicide of Sandra Bland, who hanged herself in a Texas jail cell in 2015 after a state trooper arrested her following a petty argument at a traffic stop.

In 2017, Texas lawmakers passed the Sandra Bland Act, which requires that outside law enforcement agencies investigate jail deaths. That's why Converse's police are being brought in. The law also requires that county jails divert people with mental health and substance abuse issues to treatment. According to the text of the law, this process was supposed to start within 24 hours of Dotson-Stephens' arrest. The magistrate was supposed to have a written assessment of Dotson-Stephens' mental health situation within 10 days and can order an uncooperative defendant (which they claim she was) to an examination at a mental health facility within 21 days. That doesn't seem to have happened here. The question is why and whether she'd still be alive if the county had followed what the law demands.

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  1. That’s actually where her family thought she was all this time.

    They could have bothered to check.

    1. FFS, when the chick who cuts my hair disappeared for a few weeks, her employer and I (she’s been cutting my hair for many years) tracked her down and found out she was being held for DUI in the jail of the neighboring county where she resided.

      Her bail was only $1,000, but her husband was leaving her in their for awhile so she could dry out. Apparently she had developed some pretty serious substance abuse issues. After about a month he got her out. I think they were trying to push her into treatment.

      But at no point did anyone just ignore her absence.

      That jail is going to pay out big for this

  2. On Monday, family members said they didn’t even know she was in jail or they would have come bail her out.

    “Crazy Old Lady Dies in Jail Because Her Family Really Doesn’t Care About Her” is probably a couple words too long for a more accurate headline.

    1. How about “crazy old lady dies in jail because neither her family or the authorities cared about her at all and thr authorities didn’t even do the bare minimum of what the law says they have to do.”

  3. 5 months for misdemeanor = time served?

  4. Was she homeless? From the stuff in this story, I find it difficult to believe that she could even arrange a monthly rent – much less keep a job for long enough to pay off a mortgage on a house.

    Her ‘offense’ is exactly the sort of thing one would expect a homeless person to be charged with. But the notion of simply releasing them back into homelessness out of some misguided sympathy about cash bail seems a bit misplaced.

    1. Or you could release them back into homelessness because the alternative is keeping them in a cage for six months for misdemeanor trespassing. Or, you know, indefinitely, since there’s no sign she was going anywhere until she died.

      1. Being in jail or hospital is generally better than being homeless.

        1. Depends on what you want from life, doesn’t it? A lot of people (and yes, lots of mentally ill people) choose to be homeless rather than be “in the system” like that.

          1. The ACTUAL number I’ve seen re the homeless who actually choose to be homeless is roughly 6% of them. And most of them do not actually prefer ‘homelessness’ but prefer ‘a transient life’ (one without a commitment to ‘place’).

            The homeless aren’t the ones who forced that choice of ‘transient’ to be linked with ‘homeless’. Everyone else imposed that on them:

            by entirely eliminating those first couple rungs of ‘shelter’ – cage hotels, SRO lodging, flophouses, etc – that are exactly the shelter demanded by those who only value shelter as a safe place to sleep and store a few things. IOW they no longer HAVE that sort of shelter as a choice.

            by criminalizing transience/mobility

            1. I don’t disagree with you there.

        2. We had a patient in my hospital, in her 50s, about a year ago; she had been admitted from a local jail with what turned out to be a ruptured appendix. By the time they brought her here so was septic beyond help and died shortly after admission.

          Moral of the story: do not get sick in jail

          1. PS: She was incarcerated b/o drug related offenses, of course

      2. Homeless die 30 years younger than average

        The new research found that the average homeless person has a life expectancy of 47, compared to 77 for the rest of the population: a startling difference of 30 years. The life expectancy for women was even lower, at just 43 years…The life expectancy of the homeless in England was reported to be similar to that of inhabitants in the war-stricken Democratic Republic of Congo

        And that’s from UK where there are no bitter winters and where they can access medical before they are put in ER’s simply to prevent a death on the street.

        1. “And that’s from UK where there are no bitter winters ”

          Depends a lot on what you call bitter. the UK certainly gets cold enough to be life threatening.

          More than 3,000 people are “needlessly” dying each year in the UK because they cannot afford to properly heat their homes, new research has revealed.

          And that’s 3000 people who have homes, not people who are homeless.

          1. “And that’s 3000 people [who died in unheated homes] who have homes, not people who are homeless.” I suspect UK government policies make heating fuel costs several times as much as they would in a free market. OTOH, I would expect natural gas, which is the cleanest and cheapest home heating fuel in most of the USA, to cost more in the UK because 40% is imported.

        2. I’d really like to know what’s causing the lower life expectancy for women, because I have to presume British women are less likely to die violently than similarly situated men.

          1. idk – but looking at the detailed report it’s a combo of a smaller sample size with a significantly higher death rate for young homeless women (16-29). So where for men, drug/alcohol is both a cause and consequence of homelessness – for women it may be that drug/alcohol is much more a consequence of homelessness – with more likelihood then of spiraling out of control. Much more suicide in that age group too (and 9x higher for homeless than non) and wouldn’t surprise me if ‘being homeless’ has more depressing mental consequences for women than for men.

    2. I’ve seen some pretty mentallly fucked up people who are surprisingly not homeless.

  5. Don’t be poor or homeless in Texas.

  6. Those who would help this woman need to distinguish her case from a drug addicted car burglar, who will burglarize more cars as soon as released.

    It’s the low level criminal which robs all such people of sympathy.

    1. You are a heartless asshole. The drug addicted car burglar doesn’t deserve to die in jail either.

  7. The system isn’t concerned. There will be another widget coming past on the conveyor belt any second.

    1. The defenseless are at the mercy of whomever, and the State is the chief offender.

  8. Janice Dotson-Stephens, 61, died in jail on Friday after living there for months because nobody paid $30 to a bondsman to cover her bail.

    […]

    On Monday, family members said they didn’t even know she was in jail or they would have come bail her out.

    So, not a close family I gather.

    1. They. May live far away too. I have relatives that live across the country that I barely see every ten years or so.

  9. The answer to the question is “because people are generally ignorant, petty, and cruel.”

  10. Aw shit. She’s black too which makes it even worse.

  11. Good God Almighty. Is that worth being on our dole? Clearly family didn’t think so either. Christ, the chimps would toss her.

  12. $30. Damn. I need to get my nails did…..

  13. And that…that… is a productive member of society? Fuck all.

    1. She was ill. Most chronically homeless people are mentally ill.

      Compassion for the indigent is a necessary thing.

  14. Procedures were followed.
    No blame to the system.
    Move along, nothing to see here.

  15. Poor dear looks like a raccoon.

  16. Custody means, in care and control of.

    Six months in jail seems a little excessive for trespassing. I would think her debt to society would have been repaid within a week.

    What do shithole countries do with old mentally ill women? Let them die in jail.

    1. This was a thought I had too. How long did the courts plan on holding off her trial? It’s not like she had an attorney dragging it out with continuances. 6 months to go to trial? WTF?

      1. Trial for an old mentally ill woman who trespassed? The punishment could only be a few days in jail.

        What a waste of resources.

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