Use-of-force cases, bail and drug crimes become top issues in Travis County District Attorney race

Travis County

Democratic candidate José Garza and Republican candidate Martin Harry spar over how to "reform" the justice system

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Travis County voters will soon decide who will hold the spot as the area’s top felony prosecutor.

After beating out Margaret Moore, the incumbent Travis County District Attorney in the Democratic primary runoff, José Garza said he’s grateful he is one step closer to rolling out his plan to “reimagine” the county’s justice system.

“To focus on serious crimes, violent crimes, crimes against women and gun violence,” he said, laying out his objectives.

His opposition, Republican Martin Harry, acknowledges the shortfalls of the current criminal justice system, but thinks a stronger enforcement of the law is the solution.

“His [Garza’s] approach is non-sensical. If the problem is an unequal enforcement of the law, the proper response is to apply the law equally,” he argued. “He’s proposing to pick and choose and which laws to enforce.”

Harry is a local attorney, with a background in criminal and civil law. He calls Garza “too extreme” and thinks many Democratic voters in the county might identify with his own politics, over his opponent.

“Unfortunately, there’s some belief that the election is over, and that Mr. Garza is the presumptive district attorney — but that’s not true. This is a different election because the democrat nominee is actually a democratic socialist,” he said.

Garza argues he’s responding to calls from the community for change.

“They have asked us to address the deep racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system,” he said.

As the Executive Director of the Worker’s Defense Project, Garza said he’s seen how the current justice system weighs “too heavily” on people of color and the working class. He wants to change the way drug crimes are prosecuted and reform the cash bail system.

Approaches to the bail process

José Garza said he believes anyone who poses a threat to the community should stay in custody, but emphasized that it is “unacceptable” for someone to sit in the Travis County jail because they cannot afford to post their bail amount.

“That creates instability, and that instability makes our communities less safe,” he said.

His proposal for changing the bail system would entail prosecutors being more “proactive” and making suggestions to judges when they feel an individual is a risk or threat to public safety or when they feel a personal recognizance bond might be appropriate.

Right now, judges hold the sole authority to set bail amounts and other conditions for release.

Martin Harry said he recognizes there have been abuses to how bail has been administered, but worries about sweeping changes to the practice.

“Bail is, in reality, a right that is protected by the Constitution, the U.S. and state constitutions. It is a it is protection against abuses of power by the state,” Harry said. “[Garza] proposes to abolish it for everyone, and what we really should be doing is vindicating it for those for whom it is denied,” Harry said.

Officer-involved cases

Both candidates have been closely following the case of the in-custody death of Javier Ambler.

Garza said if he’s elected, he plans to bring every case of allegations of excessive force by an officer to a grand jury within 30 days. He also plans to communicate with the public if there’s a delay and update the public every 15 days on the situation.

“I think it is a way to ensure that it is the community that is making decisions about when a law enforcement officer has engaged in misconduct,” he said.

Harry agreed with Garza on the need for more urgency and transparency in regards to officer-involved cases. However, he doesn’t think every case should go before a grand jury.

“It is much more transparent for the district attorney to review the case and make a decision, and then provide a detailed explanation for that decision to the public,” Harry said. “The grand jury is a secret process, but it is still dependent on what evidence is presented by the District Attorney. So, if the grand jury decides not to indict someone suspected of a crime, then there might be some lingering doubts as to how forcefully the district attorney presented the case to the grand jury.”

Garza responded to that concern, emphasizing his plan to be transparent with the community “on the front end.”

“The District Attorney’s office is disclosing to the public that a case is present and information about that case, that is going help the public have the understanding, the understanding they need to in order to have trust in our criminal justice system,” Garza said.

Harry also worried that the relationship between the D.A.’s office and law-enforcement was deteriorating.

“We have to really work cooperatively together,” Harry said. “This is one reason why I think Mr. Garza’s adversarial posture with the police is so troubling because he is going to make it less likely to get the cooperation that we may depend on to prosecute some of these dangerous offenders.”

Garza, however, takes a more independent approach to the justice system, prioritizing holding law enforcement accountable. He’s noted in the past that he refuses to take campaign contributions from law enforcement groups.

Sexual assault cases

One of the most public criticisms of the incumbent District Attorney, Margaret Moore, was her office’s handling of sexual assault cases.

Harry and Garza both have said they would want to rejoin SAART, the Austin Travis County Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team, a group of advocates and law enforcement representatives.

Throughout his campaign, Garza has noted that relations with the survivor and advocate communities were crucial. He told KXAN he would “dedicate resources” to serious crimes against women.

Harry also said he plans to be “more aggressive” in terms of handling those cases.

“Then, in instances where we were not going, or where we did not believe that we could successfully pursue prosecution, then I think it would be incumbent on me to inform the community as the reasons why — and to do that in a timely fashion,” he said.

Drug crimes

 Garza has been vocal throughout his campaign about his goal of ceasing prosecution of low-level drug offenses. He’s said he believes these crimes and the treatment of offenders is one of the main drivers of the racial disparities in our system.

Harry, however, feels the criminal justice system and diversion programs must go hand-in-hand.

“When you don’t enforce the law, you lose those opportunities to identify people with these problems and to intervene to help them,” he said. “Now, not everyone is going to cooperate, but we use the criminal justice system as leverage. We still retain the authority to hold them accountable for the crimes that they commit, if they refuse to cooperate and get help for their condition.”

Garza said the county spend an “overwhelming amount” of resources prosecuting low level drug crimes. He instead emphasized his plan to prioritize violent crimes.

“In 2018, the district attorney’s office prosecuted approximately 70 sexual assault cases and over 2,700 drug cases,” he said. “Those practices, the evidence shows, don’t keep our community safe.”

Campaign finance complaint

This week, KXAN investigators learned Martin Harry had filed a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission, over concerns about inconsistencies in José Garza’s campaign finance reporting.

We are working to obtain more information on this complaint from TEC and the Garza campaign, and will update this article when more details are available.

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