James was hospitalized in January 2010 to treat an infection caused by MRSA, a bacterium that is resistant to most antibiotic treatment. During her hospitalization, her son Donto revealed that James had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2008, and attributed her previous comments about Beyoncé Knowles to "drug induced dementia".
She was diagnosed with leukemia in early 2011. The illness became terminal and she died on January 20, 2012, just five days before her 74th birthday, at Riverside Community Hospital in Riverside, California. The funeral, presided by Reverend Al Sharpton, took place in Gardena, California on January 28, 2012. Singers Stevie Wonder and Christina Aguilera each gave a musical tribute.
James encountered a string of legal problems during the early 1970s due to her heroin addiction
. She was continuously in and out of rehabilitation centers, including the Tarzana Rehabilitation Center, in Los Angeles, California. Her husband Artis Mills, whom she married in 1969, accepted responsibility when they were both arrested for heroin possession
and served a 10-year prison sentence. He was released from prison in 1982 and was still married to James at her death. She was also arrested around the same time for her drug addiction, accused of cashing bad checks, forgery and possession of heroin.
In 1974, James was sentenced to drug treatment instead of serving time in prison