José Garza, Jeremy Sylestine Vie for District Attorney

Travis County residents have a D.A. decision

Democratic candidates José Garza (l) and Jeremy Sylestine (courtesy of Candidates’ Campaigns)

José Garza’s defeat of District Attorney Margaret Moore in 2020 was a landmark moment for the criminal justice reform movement in Austin. Now, he faces a primary challenge from Jeremy Sylestine that will test the popularity of the progressive platform Garza won on and has implemented over the past three years.

Moore, who started her career as a prosecutor under legendary Travis County D.A. Ronnie Earle before becoming a titan of Travis County politics in her own right, symbolized the establishment wing of the county’s courthouse community. Garza had little experience as a prosecutor, but he was deeply enmeshed in the coalition of community organizations that had gained substantial power within local affairs over the previous five years.

Garza won the July run-off against Moore by more than 30 points and then sailed to general election victory in November. But before he was even sworn in, his critics launched attacks aimed at his campaign platform. They homed in on his commitment to pursue prosecutions of police officers accused of on-duty wrongdoing and his approach to bail.

Sylestine, who is a member of the Alabama-Coushatta tribe of Texas, worked in the D.A.’s Office for 15 years before departing in 2021 to work as a criminal defense attorney and chief appellate trial judge of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of East Texas. He has positioned himself as a candidate more in the mold of Moore and her predecessors – a prosecutor who believes the system can be reformed, but also that one of the primary roles of a D.A. is to ensure cases are strong enough to stand before a jury, especially for violent offenses.

But have Travis County voters moved on from that perspective? The March 5 primary will be the first opportunity for the county’s liberal, but not always progressive, electorate to provide an answer.

Garza thinks the people are still with him. He points out, accurately, that property and violent crime (including homicide) in Austin have decreased following a spike in 2021. “We know that public safety is stability,” Garza told the Chronicle, Feb. 19. “There is no doubt in my mind that the policies our office has enacted, in partnership with the city of Austin and Travis County, have increased stability in our community.”

Those policies, Garza says, include diversion programs, like one his office launched that seeks to divert juveniles accused of assaulting caregivers from jail and into family counseling; efforts to treat drug offenses as a public health problem; and attempts to hold law enforcement officials accused of dangerous, violent conduct accountable through the courts. Though, on the law enforcement prosecution front, Garza has had mixed results.

“The job of D.A. is not just to seek convictions, but to see that justice is done.”   – D.A. José Garza

Sylestine agrees with much of Garza’s philosophy but feels that he has strayed too far from the core responsibility of a D.A. – prosecution. Sylestine said he’d likely continue all of Garza’s diversion programs if he won, when talking to the Chronicle’s Editorial Board on Jan. 25. (Sylestine did not respond to our interview requests for this story.) But he’s also criticized Garza’s administration for not bringing cases to trial quickly enough (Travis County’s criminal courts were closed for about two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which produced a sizable backlog). He has said that criminal prosecution of people dealing with substance use disorder can be a critical part of connecting them with resources to support their recovery.

The challenger criticizes Garza’s approach to prosecution of law enforcement officials – in particular Garza’s decision in December to drop 17 of 21 cases brought against Austin police officers for their conduct during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. Sylestine characterizes this decision as one of political opportunity (the cases were dismissed days before the filing deadline in the Democratic primary; Garza argues he was simply acting upon new information). But Sylestine, who worked on some of the cases before he left the D.A.’s Office, feels they were weak from the start. “To me, [pursuing these cases] talks about a lack of qualification and ability to evaluate cases,” Sylestine told the Chronicle Jan. 25.

Sylestine has also criticized Garza for his more lenient approach to bail (judges set bail terms, but prosecutors can advocate for more or less stringent conditions). Keeping people out of jail who might be better served by other resources was a key part of Garza’s campaign, but Sylestine says this can have tragic consequences – like one case involving a man let out of jail on a $1 bond who was later arrested for stabbing another man to death. “I don’t know how many of those stories it takes to convince people that this is not the right administration,” Sylestine told us.

Garza noted that the man’s initial arrest, for a violent offense, “had serious self-defense issues” that warranted more investigation, which his prosecutors were engaged in when the statutory deadline to indict passed, allowing the man to be released from jail. But more broadly, Garza feels that Sylestine’s criticisms – both on police prosecution and bail reform – echo national talking points from right-wing forces. Certainly, Sylestine’s campaign has been funded primarily by people who have historically funded Republicans.

Sylestine denies that’s a conservative choice, saying his supporters see in him a competent, career prosecutor. “There is a complicated mess of problems at the D.A.’s Office that requires an expert’s touch,” Sylestine told us. “I know what it takes to not just put [cases] together, but to present them in court and make them something that will hold up before a Travis County jury.”

But, Garza told us, “the job of D.A. is not just to seek convictions, but to see that justice is done.” “Our community decides what justice is, and it’s our job to reflect those values.”

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