Sunday, February 03, 2019

SA bail tragedy illustrates how misdemeanors can ruin lives

One of Grits' favorite thinkers on justice topics, Alexandra Natapoff, whose new book about the misdemeanor system, Punishment Without Crime, I hope to review in the coming week, had a column in the New York Post with a Texas anecdote in the lede. It began:
Just before Christmas, Janice Dotson-Stephens died in a San Antonio jail. The 61-year-old grandmother had been arrested for trespassing, a class B misdemeanor in Texas. She couldn’t afford the $300 bail, and a mere $30 payment to a bail bondsman would have let her out. She stayed in jail for nearly five months, waiting for her case to be handled, before she died. Her family has sued, and an independent agency is currently investigating the cause of her death. This is how the American misdemeanor system quietly and carelessly ruins millions of lives. 
Dotson-Stephens was a victim of a vast misdemeanor machinery that routinely and thoughtlessly locks up millions of people every year. America is already infamous for mass incarceration — with 1.5 million state and federal prisoners, we put more people in prison than any other country on the planet. But nearly 11 million people pass through over 3,000 US jails every year, according to a 2016 report by the Department of Justice. On any given day, there are approximately 700,000 people in jail. One-quarter of them are there for misdemeanor offenses; the majority of them, like Dotson-Stephens, have not been convicted of anything and are therefore presumed innocent. 
Given the minor nature of most misdemeanors, it is shocking how often they send people to jail. Amazingly, people routinely get locked up when they are arrested for petty offenses even if they could not be sentenced to jail for the offense itself.
On that last point, Texas is beginning to consider reforms to the misdemeanor system along the lines Natapoff envisions. This legislative session, we've already seen HB 482 filed by Rep. Senfronia Thompson to restrict arrests for Class C misdemeanors, which carry a maximum punishment of a fine, not jail time. This would impact a lot of cases: In Harris County, for example, 11 percent of all arrests are for Class C misdemeanor violations, mostly traffic offenses.

Most famously, Thompson's legislation would have denied the state trooper who pulled Sandra Bland out of her car the authority to arrest her for failing to signal a lane change - the trigger event in a series of injustices that led to her globally publicized death.

Meanwhile, bail reform, the need for which Ms. Dotson-Stephens' case in San Antonio ably demonstrates, will be filed on Monday in conjunction with the State of the Judiciary speech. Maybe that bill would have helped her. Or maybe, when the courts finish articulating the constitutional standards for pretrial release in Texas and the 5th Circuit, ongoing federal litigation will address the problem. Much is uncertain. But one thing is for sure: whatever reforms occur will happen too late to help Sandra Bland or Janice Dotson-Stephens.

RELATED: Here's more background on the case from The Texas Observer.


Anonymous said...

One simple and, I would have thought, low-cost tweak that would help to winnow out those arrestees who should be evaluated for mental health issues would be a requirement that the electronic records kept by each county should contain a red flag designator that would appear automatically from the time that an individual was first identified by the jail as someone in need of MH or ID evaluation under Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Art. 16.22, or in whose case a competency evaluation was ordered. If that appeared in jail records and court dockets -- and, ideally, in the notification sent to counsel when they are appointed -- there would be even less excuse for these sorts of tragedies because the "frequent flyers" through the jail/mental health system could be automatically and promptly identified and their cases handled appropriately. At the moment, the wheel sometimes has to be reinvented each time . . .

Anonymous said...

06:36:00 AM - In Dallas County, in my experience, potential mental health cases are flagged more or less immediately in FELONY cases and appointed counsel is notified. ADAPT/Crisis service project knows their clients and they are able to ID them in jail when re-arrested. Who provides MH services in your county?

But in misdemeanor cases, D stays in jail for a few days and already has enough back time to get out on "time-served." They just want to get out. Especially the frequent flyers. They know the drill and they are not going to consent to the MH eval or admit MH issues if they do.

I have no idea why this woman in SA had to wait 3 months for a trial on a Class B or why she wasn't given a PR bond. That is crazy.

Anonymous said...

Bexar operates a courtroom at the jail to "time-served" and evict prisoners. The prisoner must be willing to participate. This one was not, and refused all communication and interviews. She refused to sign a personal bond promise to appear. The lawyer told the county, and a judge agreed to investigate her competency to stand trial. She passed while waiting for that evaluation.

There is no truth in sentencing. Everybody is sentenced to double the time they have done. After three months, she served her maximum sentence. The prosecution should have dismissed just to get her out.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 07:57:00 AM - I handle appeals and habeas cases from all over, not just one county. I find it incredible that this lady was not identified by the jail under Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Art. 16.22. They should have flagged up the previous MH issues, and if the State had been notified, perhaps the case could have been dismissed. Or somebody could have decided not to just leave this poor lady to rot.

And Anonymous 11:54:00 AM, I have previously read that the attorney never visited her, and that it was the court that ordered the evaluation sua sponte. Even if she was uncooperative, it would be interesting to know if the lawyer asked the State to dismiss the case - there's no sign in the court's docket that he did anything on her behalf.