Austin, Texas, Just Voted to End the Drug War

O n day one, we will end the prosecution of low-level drug offenses here in Travis County,” announced district attorney candidate José Garza, at a February forum on criminal justice reform in Austin. “We will end the prosecution of possession and sale offenses of a gram or less.”

That may have sounded to some like a bold statement, but Garza argued it was the rational response to a “broken system.”

On Tuesday night, voters in the state capital of Texas and the surrounding county agreed. Garza, a former federal public defender, immigrant rights activist, and executive director of the Texas Workers Defense Project–Proyecto Defensa Laboral, swept to victory over Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore in a closely watched Democratic primary runoff election. And the successful challenger signaled that he is ready to act. “We know that 60-percent of all people arrested and charged with drug possession through traffic stops are people of color,” he told reporters. “So, it is time to end the war on drugs in this community to begin to unwind the racial disparities in our criminal justice system.”

Garza won 68 percent of the vote to 32 percent for Moore, who, as The Austin Chronicle noted earlier this year, had been “under fire on many fronts for her perceived insufficient commitment to true justice, particularly for women survivors of sexual assault.” The Chronicle endorsed Garza as a candidate who would bring to the office “a demonstrable commitment to equity.”

With the party nomination secured in an overwhelmingly Democratic county, Garza is positioned to further demonstrate that commitment as one of the most high-profile members of the emerging class of county prosecutors who are prepared to upend old ways of thinking about law enforcement and the achievement of justice. He’ll join Chicago’s Kim Foxx, Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner, and San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin as part of a movement to transform how cities and countries across the country address public safety issues. “The movement is growing!” observed Boudin, as he celebrated the victory by Garza, who ran with strong support from unions, Austin Democratic Socialists of America, the Working Families Party, and Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

The Texan summed up the thinking of the movement during the course of a campaign in which he told voters, “Our system doesn’t have to be broken. We have the power to fix this. And we have a right and a responsibility to demand that it be fixed.”

What distinguished Garza is his determination to move quickly and decisively to take on the gravest injustices.

Take his response to questions about capital punishment. “The Death Penalty is morally and ethically wrong, does not serve as a deterrent, has proven to be applied arbitrarily at best, and comes at tremendous financial costs,” the candidate’s platform states. “As District Attorney, I will not seek a death sentence. I will also review all post-conviction death penalty cases to ensure that there are no forensic, evidentiary, or legal issues that should cause the conviction to be called into question.”

Or his response to questions about police violence. “Prosecutors must play a key role in holding police accountable and ensuring that officers who commit misconduct are not allowed to continuously harm communities,” asserts Garza, who began his list of commitments on the issue by promising, “We will never take donations from police organizations. We deserve a DA unbought by those they are responsible for holding accountable.”

Or his response to questions about prosecuting the powerful—including corporate CEOS. “No one should be above the law, no matter how rich they are or just because of their job title. We will use our resources to investigate and prosecute the powerful actors in Travis County who have harmed the public—landlords who exploit immigrants, police officers accused of misconduct, and corporate heads who take money from the poor will no longer have a free pass in Travis County,” reads his platform. “Instead, the Travis County District Attorney Office will actively investigate and prosecute powerful actors who have abused their positions.”

Garza’s vision of the DA’s office as a platform for pursuing economic, social, and racial justice was especially profound when it came to stopping the damage done by a war on drugs that for too long has been facilitated by Democratic and Republican prosecutors.

In a set of commitments for how he would run the DA’s office in a county where the population is nearing 1.3 million, Garza explained:

The revolving door of justice for people with substance abuse issues is a waste of time, money, and prosecution resources. The latest medical research on addiction suggests that treating drug use as a public health issue, as opposed to a criminal justice issue, is a more effective approach to reducing harm and promoting public safety. Nevertheless, our jails and prisons are filled with people who have done nothing more than suffer from addiction.

As a result, this office will seek to pursue policies that reduce the number of people in jails and prisons for drug-related offenses. We also have a responsibility to prevent deaths—safe injection sites and harm reduction programs are key to keeping our most vulnerable alive.

Unless there is evidence that a person poses a danger to the community, I will not prosecute sale or possession of a gram or less of narcotics. For possession or sale of larger amounts of narcotics, my office will consider all appropriate diversion programs so that person may avoid a conviction if they are not a danger to the community.

For decades, politicians of both parties and their amen corners in the media fostered the fantasy that filling prisons would make communities safe. Elected prosecutors mounted reelection campaigns that highlighted their conviction rates and their willingness to pursue the harshest sentences.

Even as evidence of policing abuses, prosecutorial misconduct, systemic racism, and the absolute failure of mass incarceration mounted, too many prosecutors in too many places responded with incremental reforms that changed little.

Too many prosecutors refused to change course and recognize that the system is not working.

Garza knows there is something wrong with a system in which “the majority of our resources are spent locking-up people struggling with substance abuse and our DA’s office has not reduced the number of people we send to prison.” And he knows there are smart alternatives. “The research is clear: prisons do not reduce recidivism,” says the candidate Travis County voters has just nominated. “In fact, rehabilitation programs run outside of prisons consistently outperform those run in prison when it comes to keeping people out of jail.”

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