‘Our jails aren’t medical facilities’: DA candidate José Garza on the War on Drugs in Austin

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José Garza, a candidate for district attorney in Travis County, says its time for Austin to join other Texas cities in pushing progressive criminal justice reform. 

To Garza, that means ending cash bail, doing away with the prosecution of low-level drug offenses, and treating kids like kids— not adults—in the justice system.

“What I see every day is a criminal justice system that’s broken, that weighs most heavily on working-class people and people of color,” Garza told the Signal.

The current executive director of the labor advocacy group Workers Defense Project and a former public defender, Garza said his experience defending clients and workers has given him a different perspective about what the duty of a district attorney is. 

He said the number one job of any district attorney is to keep their community safe– not by filling jails with people, but by helping create stability in the community. 

“For centuries, we have been sold this bill of goods that what keeps us safe is to lock up working-class people and people of color,” Garza said. “And what the data has shown us over and over again, is that that approach is a failed approach.”

He cited the recent tragic story of Travis County Jail inmate who died in their cell after being arrested for possession of a controlled substance. “Our jails aren’t medical facilities. They can’t be healthcare providers. They’re not detox facilities,” Garza said.

Garza also spoke of a case during his time as a public defender when a client was charged with possession of a controlled substance. Despite winning the case with a “not guilty” verdict, he said his client languished in jail for six months before the trial because they could not afford to pay bail.

Margaret Moore, the incumbent Democrat district attorney of Travis County, is by no means a conservative. Like Garza, Moore believes the ongoing War on Drugs has been a failure too. Since elected in 2016, she’s pushed to reduce sentencing on non-violent crimes and developed diversion programs for young defendants as well as those with mental health needs. On the campaign trail, she’s argued that the reforms her opponents are seeking are already underway.

But Garza’s campaign, as well as that of his fellow opponent, attorney and victim service advocate Erin Martinson (who has been pressuring Moore over the county’s controversial record of handling of rape cases) is proof that the incumbent district attorney, can be punched from her left.

Likewise, the healthy diversity in campaigns and organizations that have endorsed Garza, like Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Black Austin Democrats, Austin DSA, and The Austin Chronicle, among others, are also evidence that some Austinites feel Moore’s reforms have either not moved quickly or not far enough.

“What we have done in this country, in this state, and in Travis County is that we use our criminal justice system like a rug,” Garza said. “When our failed healthcare system fails someone, when our failed approach to substance abuse fails someone, when our failed mental health system fails someone, we sweep them under the rug of our criminal justice system so we don’t have to see our own failures.”

Photo: José Garza Campaign Website

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