The Austin Chronicle

Opinion: Investing in Working-Class Communities Is Central to Our Public Safety

By José Garza, September 10, 2021, Columns

Every year on Labor Day, we celebrate the achievements and struggles of working people in our country. For two and a half centuries – and now – American workers have contributed to the most vibrant and successful economy in the world. But we still have a long way to go to ensure that people who work receive investments and support that match their contributions. And it is increasingly clear that investing in working-class communities is central not only to growing our economy but to our public safety.

That is why the Travis County District Attorney's Office is launching an Economic Justice Enforcement Initiative. This initiative centralizes our activities related to economic justice, notably the handling of cases of wage theft, unsafe working conditions that rise to the level of criminal conduct, and efforts to ensure people charged with nonviolent crimes have opportunities to reenter the workforce.

Over the last 18 months, the pandemic has devastated small businesses; increased the unemployment rate for communities of color; and shuttered schools, churches, and other institutions essential to the fabric of our community. Even now, the unemployment rate for Latinx and Black communities is markedly higher than the national unemployment rate. The pandemic has increased instability for all of us – but has resulted in deep instability among underserved communities. And we know that instability makes us all less safe.

As our nation struggles to emerge from the deadliest pandemic in a century, early data shows that while we are nowhere near the crime levels of the 1990s, the national homicide rate increased by 25% in 2020, a trend that has continued in many cities through the first half of this year. This increase occurred even as the overall crime rate dropped. Early data also shows that the increasing violence was concentrated among communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In order to confront this rise in homicides, of course law enforcement and prosecutors alike must competently investigate and prosecute them. But if we are serious about reversing this trend, we must address the root causes of instability in our communities. Now is not the time to retreat to failed tough-on-crime policies that have that ignored data, created instability in working-class communities and communities of color, and made us less safe.

It is clear that continuing to lock up more and more people has had a profoundly negative impact on families and children, particularly in working-class communities and communities of color. Half of all adults in the United States have had an immediate family member incarcerated. Compared to white people, Black people were 50% more likely to have a family member currently or formerly incarcerated. And adults whose household incomes were less than $25,000 per year were over 60% more likely than those with incomes of $100,000 to have had a family member incarcerated.

Rising national homicide rates make it clear that this tough-on-crime approach has had no impact on the rate of violent crime in our country. Instead, we should be investing as many resources in lifting up working-class people and people of color as we do locking them up.

Enforcing laws that don't destabilize working-class communities and expanding economic opportunities for underserved communities make us safer. Now, we must renew our commitment to people who work in our community. It is essential to maintaining the most vibrant economy in the state and to our public safety.

José Garza was elected Travis County district attorney in November 2020. His win in a tight democratic primary against an incumbent was hailed as a mandate for change. He attended Catholic University Law School in Washington, D.C. As a former federal public defender, immigrant rights activist, and executive director of the Workers Defense Project, Garza has advocated for criminal justice and bail reform and other changes in the criminal justice system for those involved in nonviolent crimes.

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