The in-custody death of a woman who languished in a Texas jail for months over an alleged minor nonviolent offense showed how the cash bail system can tragically kill people.
The Bexar County medical examiner concluded that 61-year-old Janice Dotson-Stephens died Friday of natural causes, KSAT-TV reported.
She was arrested in July for trespassing on private property and was sitting behind bars ever since because she couldn’t afford the $300 bond. The news outlet speculated that local bail bond companies would have charged her just $30, or 10 percent of her bond, to arrange her release.
Dotson-Stephens’ family said they were unaware that she was in jail and believed she was getting treatment at a state hospital for mental illness.
“We just felt that she shouldn’t have died as a criminal in the jailhouse. She wasn’t a criminal. She had mental health illness,” her daughter-in-law, Leticia Dotson, said.
Anger over her death lit a fire under Alec Karakatsanis, the founder and executive director of Civil Rights Corps who blamed society for Dotson-Stephens’ unfair treatment because she was poor and Black.
“We are all responsible for the injustices of our legal system, and for the suffering inflicted in our name. We must all find out about what our court bureaucracy is doing to poor people and people of color every day, and then we should all organize against it,” he told NewsOne in an email Tuesday afternoon.
African-Americans have long been disproportionate victims of the cash bail system. Nationally, Blacks get detained in jail at nearly five times the rate as whites. Moreover, African-Americans aged 18 to 29 typically receive significantly higher bail amounts than other defendants.
Activists were pushing for bail and pretrial reforms across the nation and some progressive local governments were instituting reforms. In Atlanta, for example, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed an ordinance in February that eliminated cash bonds for release from the City of Atlanta Detention Center.
The movement received a major boost in July through a federal appeals court decision that upheld the constitutionality of a New Jersey law that reformed the state’s bail system. At the same time, the ruling provided a court-approved reform model that other states could follow.
In the New Jersey ruling, judges acknowledged that the state instituted the reforms to address inequalities—also found in other states—that kept poor people behind bars for nearly a year on average while awaiting a hearing because they couldn’t afford to pay bail of $2,500 or less.
It appeared that the mistreatment of Dotson-Stephens may run deeper. The court ordered her to undergo a psychological evaluation while in custody, but the results were not reported immediately.