By Tiffany Devlin and Koda Slingluff
AUSTIN, TX – While local prosecutors across the country have become more progressive than in the recent past, Travis County welcomes a newly-elected district attorney with a passion for transforming our criminal justice system—José Garza.
Garza defeated incumbent Margaret Moore in the Democratic primary runoff for Travis County District Attorney with 68.3 percent of the votes on last July 14, and then won 69.8 percent of the votes in the general election against Republican candidate Martin Harry.
Within Travis County is Austin—the state capital of Texas. Saturated in state history, the county simultaneously holds some of the highest liberal demographics and some of the most controversial statues of confederate soldiers.
Garza’s victory highlights this tension of values and history embedded in the politics of Travis County. His leadership embodies the progress of the state in its struggle for criminal justice reform, according to supporters such as U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
“As an experienced public servant with a proven track record of standing up for working families, I know that José will be the fighter that Travis County communities deserve,” said Sen. Warren in her endorsement of Garza. “With José as District Attorney, Travis County will gain another champion in the fight to transform our criminal justice system.”
After attending law school at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and working for Judge Richard W. Roberts in federal district court, he returned to Texas to work as an assistant public defender at
Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid.
Garza then served as an assistant public defender in the Western District of Texas. Through his experience, he saw first-hand the impact of the criminal justice system on people of color, working-class people, poor people, and immigrant families.
As a former federal public defender and immigrant rights activist, Garza said he will fight for marginalized communities, launching a comprehensive campaign to transform the criminal justice system through his role as district attorney for Travis County.
On top of being a newly-elected district attorney, Garza is also the executive director of the Workers Defense Project (WDP)—an organization that has won significant victories for low-wage workers in Texas.
During Garza’s tenure as executive director of WDP, they have won significant criminal justice reform in Travis County through the passage of a “Freedom City” policy, ending arrests for low-level criminal offenses and severing the arrest-to-deportation pipeline.
The organization has also won paid sick leave policies in Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas. This guarantees that survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence can seek the resources they need without fear of losing their jobs.
Finally, WDP has advocated for the creation of a Public Defender Office alongside community allies in Travis County, providing meaningful community oversight.
In a conversation with the Texas Organizing Project facilitated by Brianna Brown and Tearyne Almendariz, they discussed the role of the district attorney, asking what power district attorneys have to be able to bring Black and Brown liberation.
“The district attorney is the most powerful actor in our criminal justice system,” Garza explained, “not just in Travis County, not just in Nueces County, but all over the state and all over the country.
“And that is because it is the job of the district attorney to use the discretion that is vested in that office to literally decide who gets charged with a crime, and who doesn’t. And when they do, which crime they are charged with.” Garza continued.
“What’s happening all across this state and all across this country, is to really build a district attorney’s office that really puts power back in the hands of regular people who for too long have been stung by discretion. It’s time to make discretion work for us.” Garza concluded.
Indeed, Garza’s statements are outlined in his priorities as district attorney.
Garza acknowledges that the impact of the criminal justice system disproportionately affects working-class people and people of color. As district attorney, he advocates for ending cash bail in Travis County.
He also plans to expand eligibility for diversion programs, taking away impediments to participation so more individuals can be successful in the programs. Further, Garza said he will oppose transferring children to the adult criminal justice system, and will advocate for home-based alternatives to detention for children.
Garza plans to restore trust in the District Attorney’s Office by ensuring that the criminal justice system reflects the values of the community.
As district attorney, he will prioritize survivors by providing resources that they need, both in terms of services and for the criminal case itself. In 2017, the DA’s office prosecuted only one rape case out of approximately 1,000 sexual assault allegations brought to the office.
Garza’s positions address some of the controversies of his successor Margaret Moore, namely her mishandling of sexual assault cases.
A 2018 class action lawsuit against Moore and Travis County alleged that, “government officials and actors” under the former DA, “disbelieved, dismissed, and denigrated female victims of sexual assault, failed to have DNA evidence tested for years at a time, and refused to investigate or prosecute cases.”
Garza plans to actively collaborate with the community organizations already doing this work to develop evidence-based, victim-centered best practices. Garza also intends to implement a robust restorative justice program.
Garza notes that reform cannot succeed without community input, and plans to assemble a community task force, an immigration task force, and a police misconduct task force.
The community task force aims to review all drug arrests, ensuring that Garza’s commitment not to prosecute these cases is upheld. The community task force will work with public health officials in order to divert resources from the District Attorney’s Office for necessary treatment.
The immigration task force will ensure that the office policies on immigration are fully implemented, along with keeping the office informed of policy changes with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that should otherwise be addressed by the office.
The police misconduct task force will independently review police misconduct cases that are not indicted out of the grand jury, or where there is an acquittal at trial, Garza said.
This is to ensure that the office has followed necessary and best practices and prosecuted these cases to the full extent of the law, where officers who commit misconduct are not allowed to continuously harm communities, he explained.
Garza attests to the overarching goal of reimagining justice in Travis County. He wants to adopt an open file discovery policy that will apply after arrest, allowing people accused of crimes to make fully-informed decisions every step of the way.
Currently, Garza has made numerous recommendations in a letter to Travis County officials in regard to implementing changes to the criminal justice system amid the age of COVID-19.
“The Coronavirus is a threat to Travis County and this country, and it will be especially difficult to contain and treat in our jail. It threatens the over 2,000 people who are locked up in the jail, those who work in the jail, those who provide care to those who are incarcerated, and the community at large,” Garza writes.
Some policies Garza is advocating for include ending arrests and filings for all misdemeanor cases and state jail felonies unless there is a clear and on-going identified risk to public safety, immediate release of all those held at the county jail who do not pose a significant risk to public safety, and ending fees for phone calls made outside of the Travis County Jail.
“I want to be clear: most of the policies I am asking the County and City to implement are things we should do irrespective of the threat from COVID-19,” Garza writes, adding “every day, that practice destabilizes communities and now it threatens our community’s response to a rapidly spreading infectious disease.”
Tiffany Devlin is from Richmond, California, and she is a fourth-year student at San Francisco State University majoring in Criminal Justice Studies.
Koda is a junior at UC Berkeley, majoring in Philosophy and minoring in Rhetoric. He is from Ventura, CA.
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