A former public defender and immigration activist, Garza says the current American criminal justice system is broken
By Matt Keyser
National Partnership for Pretrial Justice
José Garza had a unique career he believes makes him well suited to lead the Travis County, Texas, District Attorney’s Office.
Garza, a Democrat, has spent his career on the other side of the legal aisle—he’s never prosecuted a case—as a federal public defender working cases on the Texas-Mexico border, and later as an advocate for immigrant, working-class families. Prior to his November 2020 election as district attorney, Garza was the co-executive director for the Workers Defense Project, a nonprofit organization aimed at helping low-income workers fight for better working conditions.
Those experiences, he said, gave him a first-hand look at how broken the American criminal justice system is. He decided to run for district attorney after watching progressive movements take hold in cities like Dallas and San Antonio. He believed he could help Travis County, one of Texas’ largest Democratic-leaning counties, take a stronger stance in that progressive movement, too.
Voters agreed and helped him to dominant victories in both the Democratic primary and November election. Garza defeated Republican Martin Harry with nearly 70 percent of the vote in the election.
“Voters in Travis County have sent an unmistakable clear message that they expect a criminal justice system that treats every person fairly—regardless of their race, their ethnicity, of their income, of their immigration status,” Garza said in his victory speech.
In his first 100 days since taking office, Garza has ended the use of cash bail for people charged with low-level, non-violent crimes; increased eligibility for diversion programs; and is focusing on prosecuting people charged with violent crimes rather than those with low-level drug offenses.
“We have made significant progress reshaping our criminal justice system in line with your aspirations,” Garza wrote last week in a letter to the community. “Although we still have much work ahead of us, I am confident that together we will continue to make changes that make our community more safe and restore faith in our criminal justice system.
Garza spoke with NPPJ about his goals as district attorney, fighting for underrepresented communities, and building trust back into the criminal justice system. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
NPPJ: As the elected district attorney of Travis County, what’s your vision?
José Garza: Our community has spoken out loud and clear, particularly over the last 18 months about what their vision is about for our criminal justice system. And I think what they’ve said repeatedly is that they need a criminal justice system that lifts up working-class communities of color, not one that locks them up. They want a criminal justice system that treats substance abuse disorder as the public health crisis that it is. They want a criminal justice system that focuses our resources on violent crime, gun violence, on violence against women, on prosecuting the kinds of offenses that we know will keep our community more safe. I think, ultimately, at the end of the day, they want a criminal justice system that treats people more fairly. Those are the aspirations that our community has that I feel an intense responsibility to help deliver.
NPPJ: You were a federal defense attorney, also an immigration activist at one point, and now you’ve stepped into a DA role. How has your past experience helped shape your current views?
JG: I started my career as a public defender on the Texas-Mexico border. That experience really shaped my understanding of the criminal justice system, which weighs most heavily on the working-class communities and communities of color. What I learned is that in this country we use our criminal justice system like a rug. Because of our broken and inequitable education system, we fail people. Because of our broken and inequitable health care system, we fail people. Because of our broken and inequitable mental health system, we fail people. And the people who we fail, the criminal justice system is the rug that we sweep them under so we don’t have to confront our own failures.
I had the opportunity to work in the Obama administration working to advance policies to lift up working-class families. I had the opportunity to build power with low-wage-working people, particularly undocumented communities and communities of color.
I had the opportunity to lead an organization here in Texas called Workers’ Defense Project, which works to build power with low-wage working people, particularly undocumented communities and communities of color. That’s what I learned working on the border as a public defender. But what I learned in the Obama administration and working with undocumented families at Workers’ Defense is the genuine, real power that regular people have to change their neighborhoods, their communities, and most certainly our broken criminal justice system. I learned that regular people know best what they need in their everyday lives, know best what they need for their own public safety, and know best how to achieve that.
NPPJ: How can regular people utilize that power to their benefit?
JG: Well, here in Travis County—and I think really across the country—people have been wielding that power pretty forcefully and effectively. Definitely in the last 18 to 24 months. I’m an eternal optimist. I believe that there are examples in our history where regular people have come together to make incredible change, whether it was the fight for the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act. At every point in our history, there have been moments where regular people come together to make change.
And I think over the last 18 months we’ve seen that pretty intensely. Over the last summer, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Travis County. And I think millions of people took to the streets across the country. I think we are starting to see the results of their efforts. It has resulted in people like me winning elections in November of last year.
We saw marijuana legalization initiatives pass across the country. We saw reform prosecutors win in Florida, Texas, New York, Michigan. And we have started to see real results nationally with the prosecution of Mr. [Derek] Chauvin [the white Minnesota police officer convicted of with killing George Floyd]. We’ve started to see local officials at the city really thinking about how best to use our resources to achieve public safety.
NPPJ: What’s it going to take to keep that momentum moving forward in this next election cycle and for years to come?
JG: It’s going to take what it always takes, which is people organizing. It’s going to take consistency. And I don’t have any concerns or doubts about that. Our communities have been organizing—they have been in this struggle, demanding these changes year after year after year. We are at this moment of reform, at this moment of progress, because of decades and generations of struggle, because communities have been demanding for 20, 50 years an end to violence against communities of color by law enforcement. They have been demanding an end to a criminal justice system that weighs most heavily on working-class communities of color, demanding an end to using our criminal justice system as a mental health provider. And so we are at this moment because of that, and I have no doubt in my mind that people will continue to demand these changes.
NPPJ: What is your message to those communities that have been affected for so long and are fed up and are now speaking out? I think of Asian American communities recently that have been targeted. What do you say to those communities that have been largely ignored in the past and are wary of coming forward to speak out or ask for help?
JG: Well there is no doubt that our criminal justice system, speaking writ large, has lost the trust of our community. And we have a real responsibility and real work to do to earn that trust back. That begins with listening to our community and to their wants and needs, to their aspirations. And then it goes from there to making real, tangible change.
I think that what I would say to anyone who has been in this struggle, who feels like they’re not heard, is that this is your time—this is your moment to keep up the pressure, to keep raising your voice. Because what we’ve seen over the last couple of months is that change and progress are possible. But they’re possible only because of you. And so you’ve got to keep it up.
And then we need allies, we need people who haven’t felt the brunt of our criminal justice system to continue to speak up and demand change. And I think we’re going to see that.
NPPJ: There’s been such a push for pretrial reforms lately, especially to keep people accused of low-level, non-violent offenses who don’t pose a risk to public safety out of jail and, in some instances, moving them into diversion programs. Why is that important?
JG: It’s important for a couple of reasons. One, particularly when you’re talking about substance-use disorder and other unmet mental health needs that people have, I think the data is overwhelmingly clear that the path we have pursued for the last 40 years in this country has not only failed but it actively makes us less safe. So not only are we not addressing the root causes, the root harms that lead to crime in the first place, we are spending billions of dollars across this country every year pursuing practices that exacerbate the problems that make our communities less safe.
But the other reason that we have to change course is because we know that this approach is one of the greatest drivers of racial disparities. In our system here in Travis County, 9 percent of our population is Black, but close to 30 percent of all drug arrests are members of the Black community. And we know that the No. 1 way that people are charged with drug possession in Travis County is through traffic stops. And that over 60 percent of people stopped and arrested for drug possession are people of color, enough though we don’t make up 60 percent of Travis County. And we know that substance abuse is consistent in Travis County, across all races and ethnicities—whether you’re talking about Latino, Black, white, or Asian.
The other reason is that if we’re really serious about having more safe communities, we have to do what we know works. And that is invest in getting people the help they need, invest in addressing the root causes of crime. We’ve been told for so long that what public safety is, is locking up as many working-class people and people of color as we can. If we do only that, we’ll be and feel more safe. But we know it’s not true. We know that real public safety is access to a good job, it’s access to good schools to send our kids, it’s access to good health care. What real public safety is, is stability.
NPPJ: Along the same vein, there’s so much talk about bail reform currently, especially in Texas. As lawmakers look at it this legislative session, what are your thoughts on how Texas should proceed with bail reform?
JG: I actually think this is a pretty simple thing. I think there are two things we need to do. One, we need to move away from the idea that money is somehow an efficient proxy for our public safety. It’s not. Using money as a gauge to determine whether or not someone should be in jail or not does not make us more safe; it means that if someone is violent, poses a threat to our community but they’re wealthy, then cash bail does not help us.
And by the same measure, if someone doesn’t pose a threat to our community but can’t afford bail, it means not only are we not keeping our community safe, but I think we’re actively making it less safe. Because when you remove someone from their house, from their job, from their family because they can’t afford to pay bail, you’ve created instability in that family, in that neighborhood that ultimately makes us less safe. So we need to move away from money as a proxy for safety and move towards an approach that really focuses on the question of safety.
Here in our office, we have instructed prosecutors to ask a simple question, which is, “Does this person pose a threat to our community? Is there evidence of potential future harm?” And if so, are there conditions of bail that we could request that would keep our community safe that would also address that potential risk? And if not, we will take the position that they should stay in custody if they pose a threat to our community. But if they don’t pose a threat to our community, they should be out, they should be working, they should be getting ready for the next court date.
So I think we need to move towards an approach that really centers around public safety first and foremost.
NPPJ: One of the counter arguments to bail reform is if you don’t put a person in jail the public is going to be more at risk for harm. How do you respond to those arguments?
JG: I agree that anyone who poses a threat to our community should be in custody. I think the point is that money bail is a really poor proxy for making that determination. There are so many examples of people who are given high money bails who are able to post that bail and harm our community. And there are even more examples of people who are given high money bail and don’t pose a threat to our community and stayed in jail and harm befell them or harm was done to their family or their community.
I think at the end of the day, we all just need to be focused on the data and the evidence. Fear mongering is always the easiest base response, but it’s also always the finest evidence that there aren’t sound data-based evidence for the position that someone is taking. I think we have to continue to center around what the data suggests that keeps our community safe.
NPPJ: Given your background, what made you want to run for district attorney?
JG: Two things. One, an intense sense of disappointment and an intense sense of optimism. I would have never imagined back when I was a public defender that there would be a movement across the country to reshape our criminal justice system and that movement would be happening inside district attorney’s offices. I wouldn’t have believed that. And I would have believed even less that that movement had reached the borders of Texas.
But I saw the work that [district attorney] John Creuzot was doing in Dallas, that [district attorney] Joe Gonzales was doing in San Antonio, and I was disappointed that here in Austin, Texas, in Travis County, the most progressive community in Texas, that we weren’t at the forefront of that movement and we weren’t leading those efforts.
At the same time, I was really hopeful and optimistic about what we are capable of as a community. And I think what we’re capable of is building the criminal justice system that our community deserves. That’s what ultimately spurred me to do this, is that competing sense of frustration and disappointment and optimism.
NPPJ: Whenever your time in office comes to an end, what is the legacy you want to leave behind?
JG: Honestly, my legacy is the thing I spend the least amount of time thinking about. What I’m really focused on, what I feel an intense responsibility to, is to the aspirations of our community. And I feel a responsibility to deliver the changes that our community deserves and has demanded. So that’s what I will focus on. And what I hope is that we can bring our criminal justice system more in line with the aspirations and needs of our community—that we will all be more safe, that people will begin to trust this system again.
And as I said, ultimately, that will result in our increased safety. So I’m focused on making sure that we deliver what our community has demanded.