Travis County District Attorney announces plan to address spike in gun violence

Travis County

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Travis County District Attorney, joined by other county public officials and victims of violence, announced a plan to address the dramatic spike in gun violence and homicides this year.

Tuesday morning, José Garza presented a new report and a four-part plan to address the rise in gun violence and incidents:

  • Use both traditional and innovative prosecution strategies for sentencing people charged with gun crimes
  • Work with community members to prevent gun violence by creating, supporting, and implementing intervention and prevention programs
  • Taking guns out of the hands of those at high risk for committing an act of gun violence in an intimate partner relationship
  • Supporting programming to help survivors and families of the victims of gun violence

The forward to the report reads, “As the most powerful law enforcement official in any county or city, elected District Attorneys must use this moment to be innovative, to use evidence-based approaches, and to learn from the communities most affected by violence to understand how to stop it. Only then will we be able to find real solutions that work.”

Traditional Prosecution and New Strategies

The District Attorney’s report claimed that the “vast majority” of gun offenses are prosecuted in a traditional manner.

They provided a breakdown of 2021 cases where the charges included the terms “firearm,” “gun,” “handgun,” “rifle,” or “shotgun.” The person charged in nearly 400 cases were later indicted, and 152 cases were accepted but hadn’t been indicted at the time of the report’s publication. 108 cases were disposed through a plea, 48 were dismissed or rejected by prosecutors pre-indictment.

Data reflecting the number of adult criminal prosecutions for firearms the TCDAO has received since January 1, 2021, where the charging language includes one or more of these terms: firearm, gun, handgun, rifle, and/or shotgun. (Graph provided by TCDAO)

However, the report states their office believes “the majority of people sentenced to prison will be
released, and the likelihood of recidivism remains high without finding a way to change behaviors.”

As such, they are developing a pre-trial gun program to intervene. They said a program like this could reduce recidivism. The report does not indicate any other details about what this type of program would look like in Travis County, but notes it would be modeled after “other cities.”

For example, the report references a study being conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago and the Joyce Foundation of three prosecution-led gun diversion programs in some Midwestern cities. An overview of the research — which will take place over the next two years — states that the pre-trial gun diversion programs under review intend to help young adults avoid deeper involvement in the criminal legal system and divert them from traditional court processing if they agree to participate in program requirements. The overview of this study on the university’s website does not indicate how successful these programs have been so far.

Prevention

According to the report, “most violence happens in clusters among small segments of the population.” So, the report outlines a plan to create targeted community violence intervention programs, led by people in these communities who have experienced or are experiencing violence.

These programs will target at-risk clients by assisting with their other needs such as educational training, drug treatment, and cognitive behavioral therapy.

“This work is fundamentally relationship-based: It leverages the credibility of workers to ensure that resources flow directly to those most impacted, in the areas most needed,” said Fatimah Loren Dreier, Executive Director for the Health Alliance for Violence Intervention, quoted in the report.

Intimate Partner Violence

The report said they are pursuing efforts to reduce gun violence in intimate partner relationships.

According to the report, when domestic violence escalates, the risk of death to a female victim when the male abuser has access to a firearm increases by 1,000%.

KXAN found this statistic comes from an analysis done in July 2020 and filed in the National Library of Medicine. It reveals one of the strongest risk factors for this kind of violence was the perpetrator having direct access to a gun, along with a previous rape of the victim, prior threats or demonstration of controlling behaviors.

The report touched on a federal strategy announced by President Biden earlier this year and a Travis County program for firearm surrenders in family violence cases. Plus, TCDAO enacted its own firearm surrender policy, where assistant district attorneys are instructed to ask judges, before a person is released from jail, to inquire whether that person is in possession of or has access to any firearms.

If the answer is yes, they ask the judge to order that person to surrender the firearms to the Travis County Constable of Precinct 5. A violation of this order could result in an increased bond. Previously, those firearms could have been surrendered to a family member who may live in the same household.

“The steps our office has taken, however, are not enough,” the report reads.

The report said they will also:

  • Pursue a county-wide firearm surrender protocol for those at high-risk of committing gun violence against a partner and cooperation between prosecutors, law enforcement, and advocates at each level of the system to keep guns out of these high-risk situations
  • Promote safe firearm storage
  • Enter into a partnership with Arizona State and Johns Hopkins to research access to a firearm as a key factor in detecting future homicides in intimate partner violence incidents

Victim Services

TCDAO said they hope to promote more programming to help victims of violence and their families.

The report reads, “if we are serious about preventing violence in our community, we must do more to address the harm and trauma it causes in impacted communities.”

In order to do so, TCDAO is supporting the creation of a Trauma Recovery Center that could serve victims of gun violence — especially those “who are most at risk committing crimes themselves if their trauma is left unaddressed.”

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