Reimagining justice and safety
José Garza thinks a lot about the criminal justice system — how it can best keep the public safe using evidence and data; how it, as currently designed, weighs most heavily on working people and people of color; how it can be too often defined by those who have money and those who do not. Garza, an immigrant rights activist, former labor official, and former public defender, identified a system in his community that is broken and in need of bold reform. Now, he is engaged in a serious battle to reimagine how the criminal justice system can function in Travis County — home to Austin, Texas — the most progressive county in Texas.
A candidate for Travis County district attorney (DA), Garza earned 44.3 percent in a three-way primary challenge against incumbent Margaret Moore’s 41.1 percent — forcing a runoff election scheduled for July 14. District attorneys, chief prosecutors who often escape the spotlight, have remarkably broad discretion in shaping criminal justice — they can choose whether or not to investigate and prosecute police misconduct and brutality, to prosecute or protect protestors, to end cash bail, to forgo the death penalty, and to pursue diversion and rehabilitation programs instead of incarceration for nonviolent crimes. This commanding latitude allows prosecutors to effectively reform — or enforce — a system that currently criminalizes poverty, perpetuates institutional racism, and disproportionately locks up Black and Brown people. Garza is running a platform that includes all of these reform measures.
Garza is intimately familiar with the quiet criminalization of Black and Brown people that is all too common in Central Texas and across the country. Growing up in a working-class neighborhood in San Antonio, Garza lived a reality that highlighted the divide between those who have safety and those who live in instability. In high school, Garza was mugged walking home from church choir practice by another student participating in a gang initiation. When the perpetrator was caught and may have been expelled, Garza opted not to seek disciplinary action, noting that his community was one in which school sometimes provided more stability than a student’s home. Providing stability, instead of punishment, as a vehicle for safety for the most vulnerable is a central tenet of Garza’s vision for reform.
“This is a campaign to reimagine justice, but it is also a campaign to reexamine and reimagine what it means for us to be safe in our community,” said Garza about his run for district attorney. “What growing up in inner city San Antonio taught me is what safety is — it’s [having] a job, it’s the ability of people to provide for their families, and to put food on the table. To send their kids to school, to have healthcare, a place to live. Those are the things that keep our community safe. Safety is stability.”
As a law school intern at the Montgomery County prosecutor’s office, Garza worked on a case in which a single father called the police on his son for skipping school for substance use. After the cops found a pipe with trace marijuana resin in the son’s room, the son was charged and entered rehab. After rehab, the father told the prosecutor’s office that his son was back in school and was doing better, and that he wanted to drop the case. The prosecutor, Garza’s supervisor, responded, “That’s not how it works — this is not your case, this is our case. We will not be dropping the case.” From that point forward, Garza questioned if the criminal justice system, as designed, was truly functioning in the interest of safety, or in the interest of prosecutors.
After law school, Garza started his legal career as a public defender on the Texas-Mexico border, which reinforced his view that justice in its current iteration is broken. “I saw every single day in that job, both at the state and federal level, the way our criminal justice system weighs most heavily on working people and people of color,” he said of his experience representing clients charged with misdemeanor and felony offenses.
“The overwhelming majority of people who came through my door, who were in our system, were people who had been failed by our broken education system, people who had been failed by our broken economy that provides opportunities for far too few working people,” Garza noted about the people who comprised his cases. “When we fail people, our criminal justice is the rug that we sweep them under so we don’t have to face our own failures. The thing that is wrong with that is not just that it is unjust, but that it actively makes us less safe.”
There is a dangerous perception across the country that changes to the criminal justice system in favor of the accused leads to more crime. Entrenched DAs tout this claim, and use it to deflect criticism for defending the status quo of criminal justice. However, data and evidence proves that reforming the criminal justice system can actually deliver both justice and public safety to communities. Ending cash bail, as Garza hopes to do, has resulted in similar or better rates of court appearances for those convicted of crimes to those who are stuck in jail and cannot afford to pay bail. Across the country, halting arrests for low-level drug possession, as Garza hopes to do, has not led to increased crime or recidivism, and facilitates pushing resources toward more effective public safety measures. It is increasingly clear that the current criminal justice system in Travis County, and in most places across America, perpetuates injustice while not improving public safety.
After serving as a public defender, and subsequently as counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor, and the National Labor Relations Board, and a senior labor official for the U.S. Department of Labor, Garza moved to Austin to become the Co-Executive Director of the Workers Defense Project, an organization that empowers low-income workers and immigrants to achieve fair employment.
“All of these different pieces and different communities that [Garza] has interacted with and fought for throughout his life, all of that lends itself to be a public servant, which is what the district attorney should be,” said Malenie Areche, who has been actively volunteering with the campaign for the past 10 months. “It should be a person who’s defending our community, protecting us, and making us safer.”
Sweeping justice under the rug
Austin, its sterling progressive reputation notwithstanding, has seen surprisingly little change in its criminal justice system in the last decade compared to other major Texas cities and counties that have elected prosecutors committed to reform — like Dallas and Bexar Counties. In Dallas County, DA John Creuzot made waves in his first 90 days by halting prosecutions of all low-level marijuana possession for first-time offenders, explicitly pointing to racial disparities in drug-related prosecutions, and by ending prosecution of necessary items under $750 like diapers and baby formula. In Bexar County, DA Joe Gonzales instituted a cite-and-release policy that tickets low-level marijuana possession, rather than arresting individuals charged. Austin City Council directed its police to follow a similar measure, but Margaret Moore, the current Travis County DA, has not expanded it county-wide.
DA candidates like Garza, and reform-minded prosecutors across the country often have something in common — a background on the other side of trials as defenders of the accused. Dallas County’s Creuzot was an award-winning criminal defense attorney, and Bexar County’s Gonzales served as a criminal defense attorney for 22 years. Garza started his career as a public defender, and spent years in both state and federal public defender positions. While Moore did serve as a juvenile public defender, she left her appointment after just a year to become a prosecutor in Austin for almost 40 years before winning her DA election in 2016.
Moore originally ran to be a criminal justice reformer. She aggressively shook up the DA office as she entered her role, created specialized units and divisions to address family violence, civil rights, and adult sexual assault, and promoted diversion and treatment programs. These points are the ammunition of her supporters, including state and local elected officials, who defend her reforms and point out that she, very legitimately, inherited an office in disarray from her controversial predecessor, Rosemary Lehmberg. Opponents, however, argue that Moore has failed to adequately reform the criminal justice system and follow through on her initial commitments to change.
In 2018, Moore was sued by local sexual assault survivors in a federal class action lawsuit that accused her and her office of discriminating against women survivors, and “disbelieving, demeaning, and ignoring” them. According to the lawsuit, there were approximately 1,000 sexual assault allegations made in Travis County in 2017, yet only a single rape case was prosecuted. The same year, Travis County’s city of Austin reported more rapes than any other city in Texas, and reported rapes at rates almost 40 percent higher than other U.S. cities of similar size. Further, Moore ended a longtime collaboration between the DA and Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team (SARRT), which helped agencies better respond to sexual assault crimes, and resigned from the state’s Sexual Assault Survivors’ Task Force after facing criticism.
In the wake of sweeping protests against police brutality and murders of Black people across America, it is notable that Moore announced years ago that her DA office would no longer bring all police shooting cases before a grand jury — effectively removing a level of independence from prosecutions. Mike Ramos, an unarmed Black and Latino man, was shot and killed by Austin police last month; however it took over one month for Moore to move the case forward, only doing so after intense pressure from mounting disquietude. She is, unsurprisingly, endorsed by the Austin Police Association PAC in her re-election bid.
Despite Moore’s claim that she has scaled back the prosecution of minor drug possession and increased diversion for drug cases, she has overseen pervasive prosecution of those caught with less than a gram of controlled substances. In 2017, drug possession was a leading charge for women who went to jail in Travis County, in part contributing to the creation of a new $71 million all-female jail in Austin to accommodate for a growing population of incarcerated women — disproportionately Black. More than 70 percent of the jail population in Travis County has not been convicted of a crime, but remain in jail because many cannot afford to pay cash bail. Further, Black people comprise 9 percent of the total population, but almost 33 percent of its jail bookings and almost 30 percent of drug possession arrests. Similar rates of racial disparities from over a decade ago highlights little improvement during Moore’s tenure.
Fixing a broken criminal justice system in the most progressive county in Texas
“It’s unacceptable what’s been happening to survivors. It’s unacceptable that Black and Brown people are in jail in a disproportionate amount,” said Malenie Areche, the long-time volunteer, who has multiple family members incarcerated for many years under racist pretense. “Everything that [the Garza] campaign is all about is something that is so deeply rooted in what my life has been. My whole family has been impacted by these racist policies. The only thing that makes sense to me is to be involved in this campaign.”
An Afro-Latina political organizer, Areche believes that the current climate of unrest over police murders of unarmed Black people will increase turnout for Garza, and has had several Black friends reach out recently asking how to get involved in the election. “The fact that [Moore] took over a month to bring [the Mike Ramos] case forward does not show solidarity to me. It shows political convenience,” she said of Moore’s slow response to the murder of Mike Ramos, a fellow Afro-Latino, by a police officer in Austin. “I’ve felt as a Black woman, as a Latina, gaslighted for bringing that up. It’s like ‘no, if you follow the law, if you do what they tell you, then you’ll be okay.’ And that just isn’t the case. That is top of mind for [Garza].”
Garza believes that having a victim-centered and community-based approach makes neighborhoods safer for all. While he acknowledged there are times when it is safest to remove someone from a community, he firmly reiterated that decisions to incarcerate should be guided by data, evidence, and best practices to promote safety.
“What reimagining our criminal justice system starts with is putting our safety first. If the evidence and data tell us that [incarcerating people is] not how you address substance use — that what we need are harm reduction policies, then those are the kinds of policies that we should be pursuing,” Garza said about actionable reform. “We know that locking people up just because they can’t afford to get out of jail doesn’t make us more safe. We should walk away from that system.”
Garza believes, based on his experiences, that the criminal justice system must shed the perception that it is only accessible to lawyers, experts, and prosecutors, because people in positions in power often lose sight of what actually keeps communities safe. Accordingly, he pledged to make people and neighborhoods activate participants in shaping the justice system by listening to their feedback and creating task forces.
“Regular people know best what change they need in their own lives. And they’re absolutely capable of articulating what change they need, and making that change,” Garza said of building his platform and policies in consultation with those most proximate to the issues — criminal justice advocates and activists, sexual assault survivors, and community organizations. One of his first steps would be rejoining the Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team, which the incumbent DA left. “Communities all across this country are screaming for accountability for police officers, they are screaming for sexual assault cases to be taken seriously, for survivors to be treated with dignity and respect, they’re screaming for the end of overpolicing communities of color and working class neighborhoods.”
To fix a broken criminal justice system, Garza draws inspiration from other reform-minded district attorneys, and is running on a reform platform that earned him the endorsements of prominent officials like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as well as several labor unions and community organizations. In stark contrast to Moore, he has pledged that every police misconduct case will be independently investigated, and be presented to the grand jury for review.
José Garza thinks a lot about the criminal justice system — reimagining the Travis County DA’s office as one that respects the dignity of women, communities of color, working families, and immigrants, and keeps them safe; one that dismantles cash bail; one that pursues diversion and public health instead of incarceration to treat substance use; one that protects protestors and promptly investigates police misconduct; one that righteously delivers justice for sexual assault survivors. With his extensive grassroots volunteer operation, the July 14 runoff might be Garza’s chance to put his transformative criminal justice agenda into reality.
Photo: José Garza campaign