AUSTIN (KXAN) — Before they face off in the Democratic runoff election July 14, the two candidates vying for Travis County District Attorney discussed criminal justice issues during a KXAN Live stream Monday night.
Incumbent Margaret Moore came in a close second to challenger José Garza in the Democratic primary in March. Garza received 44% of the vote (80,621 votes) to Moore’s 41% (74,796). Because neither received 50% of the vote in the primary, they’re headed to a runoff election.
The Travis County District Attorney is in charge of prosecuting felonies within the county.
Moore has been the Travis County District Attorney since 2016. She’s running on her experience in the courtroom and her decades served in public office in Travis County — first as the Juvenile Public Defender, then assistant district attorney, then County Attorney, and then as a County Commissioner.
“I also started diversion in Travis County. We pioneered ways to divert people out of the criminal justice system and find alternatives to prosecution for low-level crimes,” Moore said.
Garza argued it’s time for a change.
“Our criminal justice system is broken,” he said, explaining that it’s time to “re-imagine” the job of a prosecutor.
He’s the executive director of the Worker’s Defense Project. He claims Moore goes too far in going after drug charges and aims to end the cash bail system that he feels unfairly targets people of color.
Justice in Policing
“Members of our community, especially people of color, are hurt or killed every single year at the hands of law enforcement officers,” Garza said.
He asserted that while around 9% of the population is Black, close to 25% of the jail population is Black, adding, “it doesn’t have to be this way.”
“Law enforcement officers who commit harm against our community are not begin held accountable,” Garza said.
Moore disagreed, reminding voters she helped create the office’s first Civil Rights Unit, “to promote transparency and fairness for cases involving the unlawful use of force by police officers. She said that division had reviewed 102 cases.
“In 13 years before I took office, one indictment was returned and no cases were tried,” Moore said. “We have now had two jury trials, 21 indictments, against eight different individuals — a peace officer or a public safety official.”
She said she wants her office to be fair, thorough and transparent, and said the office’s policy regarding releasing video related to a case reflects that. She noted that a thorough investigation often takes time.
“Yes, I’d love for these cases to be handled much more quickly, but I also know what it takes to do them right,” she said.
If elected, Garza said he plans to make several changes in the handling of officer-involved cases:
- If they have not taken a case to a Grand Jury, he pledges to issue a statement within 30 days, and then update that statement every 14 days.
- He pledges to publish a public list of law enforcement officers who have engaged in misconduct, like a history of failing to turn on their body cameras.
- He said the community has a right see body camera footage of officer-involved incidents “as soon as possible.”
- He pledged to never accept a campaign contribution from a police organization.
While Moore confirmed she had accepted campaign contribution from police organizations, she said, “the idea that she can be bought is absolutely absurd.”
She argued that several Texas lawmakers, Mayor Steve Adler and former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt would agree.
“He’s taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from people we don’t even know because they are PACs organized out-of-state,” Moore said. “I think the DA of Travis County should be for the county, but not national movements that may not be good for Travis County”
She went on, “So, lets don’t go there, I don’t think he [Garza] can be bought and I know I can’t be bought. Let’s talk about instead what’s important, about a Civil Rights Division that fits this county.”
Prosecuting Drug Offenses
Garza said Moore’s office brings more drug charges than any other kind of offense.
He said “the data was clear” when it comes to the racial disparities in how drug offenses are treated in the county. He argued that while drug use was consistent across all races, arrests and conviction rates were higher among people of color.
He pledged to end the prosecution of low-level drug offenses.
Meanwhile, Moore said she called for a study on the disparities.
“The numbers did not support the assertion that minorities are treated differently in the criminal justice system: whether they got bond, whether they got a dismissal, whether they got a diversion.”
She said “race was not a factor,” but what they found to be factor was whether a person had retained or appoint an attorney. She emphasized the importance of the Public Defender’s Office for this reason.
Moore also noted that her office does not prosecute marijuana cases at the federal level.
“Our biggest problems are methamphetamine, crack, cocaine, and heroine,” she said.
She went on, “What we are down to in Travis County is a very naughty problem. It’s not easily solved, and it’s certainly not solved by saying you are going to stop enforcing the law, in my opinion.”
She said they are still trying to a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program (LEAD) to keep low-level drug offenders from ever making it to booking and into the system. She estimated this program could be up-and-running by the end of the year.
But Garza said, “We don’t need a study to tell us that different people get treated differently in the criminal justice system.”
He argued that every day a person struggling with substance abuse disorder stays in jail, the likelihood they will commit another crime goes up, and he said that wastes resources and makes our community “less safe.”