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County Attorney Garza’s first priority is public safety

Wednesday, January 5, 2022 by Willow Higgins

Delia Garza’s life as Travis County Attorney is a lot different than when she sat on Austin’s City Council. But the one thing that has stayed consistent, she said, is that no two days look alike.

Since Garza took on the role of county attorney earlier this year, she has been able to dive deep into the world of criminal justice reform, a personal passion that stemmed from her time sitting on City Council’s Judicial Committee and Public Safety Committee.

“It was born from seeing the disparity in arrests and seeing (how) people who are arrested for what are essentially crimes of poverty are treated in the criminal justice system,” she said. “Now in this job, I see how those people who can’t afford mental health care end up in the criminal justice system … so it’s been nice to be able to really dig into the policies and the processes and try to find ways to address some of those really big challenges.”

While Garza has been up to a lot this year, one of her biggest successes so far was implementing an early case review process – a systemic change that had been discussed for decades but was not adopted in Travis County until this year.

The early case review program streamlines and expedites the judicial process. If an individual is arrested for a crime, the Travis County Attorney’s Office will now review the case within 48 hours of the arrest to decide if the case will be dismissed or prosecuted. Previously, a case was reviewed and potentially dismissed only after it was magistrated, put on the docket and then filed. It was an inefficient process that kept people in jail for long periods of time for cases that would eventually be dismissed.

Thanks to the new policy, in Garza’s first six months in office, the average length of jail stays fell from 35 days (from January 2020 to June 2020) to 17 days (from January 2021 t0 June 2021). In the same period, the average number of days between when an offense was committed to the date of the case’s dismissal fell from 112 to 23. While case review isn’t happening 24 hours a day just yet, that’s one of Garza’s goals for the new year.

Garza’s mindset is reform-oriented; she is trying to change the culture of the criminal justice system, which is currently a revolving door for people who lack access to resources like housing, medication and mental health care.

“Instead of investing in job training and health clinics in jails, we need to be investing in job training and health clinics outside of jails,” Garza said. “This job is about public safety. It’s about making sure that people that should be in jail are in jail because they pose a threat to others or maybe to themselves. A lot of people in our jails do not fit that description; they are people who really just need help.”

As Garza enters her second year as county attorney, she will continue to advocate for jail diversion programs for better mental health resources outside of jail. This year, she had success expanding the eligibility requirements for the DWI diversion program. The program, designed for people who were arrested for driving while intoxicated, keeps the conviction off of participants’ records as long as they complete the program, which includes counseling and passing a breathalyzer test.

In 2020, 149 people were accepted to the DWI diversion program. After expanding the requirements this year, 510 people were accepted to the program.

“I am not doing my job of making sure public safety is a priority if we’re adding convictions to people’s records, which could affect their ability to get housing, to get a job, or the earning potential for their families,” Garza explained.

While she acknowledges the challenges involved in moving the needle, the accomplishments she’s made in year one have made Garza feel “incredibly optimistic” in her efforts to push for more change.

“We just need to be more proactive about how we help people and realize that, when people’s basic needs are met, you will not see jail population increasing,” Garza said. “I didn’t grow up with a lot of money, but I grew up with wealth in support. We didn’t have a lot, but I had two parents who cared and showed up – and so many people in our community don’t have that. The more we can do to help those people, the more we will be addressing public safety.”

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