AUSTIN (KXAN) — All three candidate vying to serve as Travis County’s District Attorney came face-to-face at a forum on Sunday afternoon. They are competing in what could be one of the most contentious local races in the March 3 primary election.

The three candidates are: current Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore, who was elected in 2016, Workers Defense Project co-director Jose Garza, and defense attorney/victim service advocate Erin Martinson. They were questioned before an audience at a packed church on the role prosecutors play in promoting public health approaches to drug use, harm reduction, and pre-arrest diversion programs. 

The forum was hosted by Grassroots Leadership, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and Texas Harm Reduction Alliance. These groups published findings last week that showed black people living in Travis County represent 29.4% of drug possession arrests, while making up just 8.9% of the population.

Candidate statements

Erin Martinson

Jose Garza

Margaret Moore

Low-level drug possession cases

Many of the questions at the forum focused on how to deflect or divert people from unnecessarily entering the criminal justice system. In particular, the candidates were asked about how low-level drug possession cases might be handled differently.

Moore pointed out that the district attorney’s office doesn’t handle low-level marijuana cases (misdemeanors). She said the bulk of drug cases her office sees are related to controlled substances like meth, cocaine, and heroin.

The current district attorney said that her office has worked with district judges to create a low-level docket which has taken 2,500 cases off the district court dockets. She is hoping to eventually move the lawyers involved with that work into doing other types of diversion.

Moore explained that the county is trying to set in motion this year a “Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program” (LEAD) in which her office would agree not to prosecute cases involving low-level possession of controlled substances. The district attorney’s office is still working to get the grant money they need and talking with the Austin Police Department about how to roll something like this out. Moore said her recommendation is that this program targets areas of Austin where racial disparities in enforcement have been documented by data analysis. 

“I believe we can put this program together,” Moore said. 

Moore and others at the panel credited the city of Seattle for pioneering this LEAD model.

Martinson had some criticism for the amount of time it has taken Moore to get this effort up and running, saying, “it is three years into office for our district attorney and she is just now talking about pre-trial deflection?”

Garza repeated several times throughout the forum that he pledges to end the prosecution of low-level drug offenses in Travis County.

Race in the criminal justice system

This debate comes at a time when the Austin Police Department leadership is facing allegations of racism, allegations which have led to a third-party investigation and an additional audit.

A city report in late January also found that people of color are being stopped by Austin Police Department officers at disproportionately high rates.

With those recent events in mind, Martinson said, “I will make it absolutely clear I will not tolerate racist or biased practices on the part of the police.”

Garza shared similar sentiments, “it is the job of the district attorney to hold powerful actors accountable, and that includes police.”

Garza said he was not surprised to hear about the allegations of racism against Austin Police leaders.

“I have been pulled over for reasons I can’t even explain and the officer can’t even explain,” Garza said, speaking of racial profiling in law enforcement.

“It is not enough to say,’Well we know there is a racism problem but it’s the problem of the police.’ I think all of you deserve a district attorney who will take leadership on these issues,” Garza added.

Moore told an audience member, “As far as racial profiling, I detest it, I think this community detests it.”

“We can stop it, I am with you on that,” she said.

A tense moment arose in the discussion when Moore asked the audience, “does anybody here think this is a community that really just shuns — sticks people in jail because they are brown? or Black?”

Members of the audience loudly responded to her “yes!”

“I’m actually in it and see it how hard we work on this,” Moore continued, “all I’m saying is, there is a way to come together with this, there are many attempts we have made to do it.”

The old versus the new

Martinson believes her twenty years of experience as a victim service advocate will prepare her for the job she is campaigning for. One of the ideas she wants to bring in is a community advisory council to assist the DA’s office.

“I want folks from all over our community that have a different experience than me, I want crime victims, I want formerly incarcerated individuals, I want leaders, I want people from communities of color, I want everyone to come together so I can hear how you’ve been harmed or how you’ve been impacted by the current practices in our criminal legal system,” she said of this council she is envisioning.

“So it’s gonna take all of us, it’s gonna take an investment from our community and it’s gonna take a prosecutor that values the perspective and the experience of the community, and that is something I’ve done the entire twenty years I’ve been working here in Travis County,” Martinson added.

Martinson added that she is in favor of using EMS to respond to mental health calls, rather than police, and that she is “100% opposed” to Travis County’s plans to construct a women’s jail.

Garza believes his experience working as a public defender in the state and federal systems will help him serve as a district attorney.

He also pointed to current flaws in health services and in criminal justice that he would like to address, citing long wait times for people without insurance if they wish to access medically-assisted drug treatment in Travis County.

“That does not keep our community safe,” Garza said. “It is time to pull back the rug, reprioritize our resources and invest in what makes us safe.” 

He also noted that if elected, sentences of twenty years or more will be, “an exception, not the rule.”

Garza also promised to, “aggressively review cases of people currently sitting in jail who should be released.”

“After we get the police out of the business of treating people who are struggling with substance use, the question then becomes, where do they go?” Garza said. “They should not go to jail, and there are places here in Travis County, there are communities and organizations — the Sobering Center and others — that I think could rise to the challenge of the system that we seek to create together.”

But Moore repeated that many of the ideas her opponents are calling for are already underway in the District Attorney’s office.

“They haven’t had the experience to know what we’ve already got going,” Moore said of her opponents. “This is a community that cares, a community that is attempting to address all these needs.”

Moore said she was elected to an office that “needed a lot of re-doing.” She created a family violence unit which is now staffed with eleven lawyers. She said she also began building an adult sexual assault unit, and she was able to get more resources for that unit from the county commissioners court in two different budget cycles.

She also noted that the Travis County Sheriff’s Office budget was reduced because the jail population declined.

“In my office, the number of people being incarcerated is decreasing,” Moore said.

On the topic of mental health support, Moore said, “we’ve got a mental health issue here, and I believe, I’ve been convinced for a number of reasons, we need to beef — protein — that up, and put people into doing mental health type cases that are solely devoted to mental health.”

The report on race and drug possession arrests published by the forum’s hosts was drawn from data gathered between June 2017 and May 2018. Moore noted there have been changes in her office since then.

“The ACLU asked me if I’d support a bill in 2017 to reduce these offenses to misdemeanors, and that’s basically what we’re doing, the legislature didn’t do it, but we’re doing it and we’re dismissing almost as many as we’re prosecuting, ” Moore said.

She added that she is committed to bringing in the necessary staff to make the diversion program the county is working on a success.

“I want to see a difference in that jail and I want to see a difference on my dockets and I promise you, you’re going to see it,” Moore said.