By Esha Kher
AUSTIN, TEXAS – Travis County District Attorney José Garza has announced the creation of a Homicide and Major Crimes Unit, and an updated set of sentencing principles in a letter highlighting the progress his office has made toward reshaping the criminal justice system in his first 100 days in office.
The Homicide and Major Crimes Unit will be up and running by July 1, 2021, and will prioritize the prosecution of violent crimes.
“This division will be staffed by experienced prosecutors who are experts in the law, well-versed in forensics, have previously handled complicated cases, and can be in regular contact with ‘homicide and major crime detectives,’” said Garza.
The office also released a set of new sentencing principles and recommendations for the prosecutors to employ when considering offers and plea bargains that take into account victim impact and prevention of future violence.
“Collectively, these principles will prioritize the safety of our community and ensure that we center victims, address the root causes of crime, and focus on preventing future violence against our community,” stated Garza.
The first principle emphasizes taking into account victim dignity and respect in sentencing recommendations.
“We will take into consideration what is likely to cause the least amount of harm or trauma to the victim,” said Garza. “And discuss with victims steps that can be taken to ensure they feel safe, or could be made whole again, in or out of the criminal justice system.”
The second sentencing principle specifies that when a person first commits a crime or while a person is on probation, “addiction and mental illness, and the offenses that follow from them, should not serve as a justification for imprisonment unless a person poses a danger to our community,” said Garza.
The third principle for prosecutors to incorporate in their sentencing recommendations is that diversion should be offered whenever possible. And even if diversion is not possible, community supervision should be offered.
The final principle emphasizes that imprisonment in all circumstances should be the last resort.
“It will be utilized if all other interventions and rehabilitative efforts have failed or prove inadequate to protect against the threat of violence to our community,” expanded Garza.
In addition to outlining the work that the office will be working on in the future, the letter also updates the public about their progress thus far.
On March 1, the office implemented a bail policy that ensures no one is in jail simply because they can’t pay bail.
“Our policy prioritizes the safety of our community and our prosecutors have been working hard to re-evaluate open cases according to that community safety framework instead of a wealth-based system,” detailed Garza.
In addition, the office is reworking many of the current victim-witness counselor policies and intake procedures to make sure victims are being heard from the beginning.
The office also wants to expand diversion eligibility to keep the community safe by providing treatment, counseling and resources to those in need.
“In the first 100 days, the office has reviewed more than 1200 cases and accepted over half of those cases into diversion,” said Garza.
Reducing the jail population to those who pose a threat to public safety rather than anyone who just can’t afford bail was a priority for the office.
“Before the pandemic, the jail population was around 2,200 people. On Jan. 1, when County Attorney Garza and I took office, the jail population was about 1,800 people and now the population is hovering below 1,500 people,” the letter stated.
Prosecuting violent crimes had been a great priority for the office.
“Since January, we have secured over 300 indictments for crimes of violence including murder, kidnapping, sexual assault, aggravated assault, and violent crimes against children,” read the letter.
Police accountability and bringing cases involving excessive force used by officers to a grand jury so that the public can decide whether their actions were considered criminal conduct was something that the office said it’s been working to in its first 100 days.
“A Travis County grand jury has issued indictments against five current and former law enforcement officers for causing injury or death to another while on the job since we took office,” said Garza.
After summing up what the office has accomplished in their first 100 days, Garza ends by committing to fulfill the needs and aspirations of the community.
“We still have much work ahead of us,” said Garza in concluding the update. “But I am confident that together, we will continue to make changes that make our community more safe and restore faith in our criminal justice system.”
Esha Kher is an undergraduate student at UC Davis studying Political Science and Computer Science, hoping to pursue a career in corporate law. She is passionate about legal journalism and political advocacy that provokes new perspectives and sparks conversation among the public.
To sign up for our new newsletter – Everyday Injustice – https://tinyurl.com/yyultcf9
Support our work – to become a sustaining at $5 – $10- $25 per month hit the link: