Criminal Justice Advocates and Officials at Odds Over Pandemic Precautions

March 18, 2020
Austin Chronicle

The coronavirus crisis has evoked a range of ideas over how best to respond to changing circumstances and increasing risks. On the local law enforcement front – still in campaign season – criminal justice reform advocates and public officials have gotten crossways.

The advocates are publicly pressing for quicker or more extensive action, and the officials respond, thanks for your help – we’ve already been acting, as quickly as we can.

Early this week, Workers Defense Project director (and District Attorney candidate) José Garza sent a letter to a number of public officials – Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and the County Commissioners, Mayor Steve Adler and the City Council, judges Brenda Kennedy (District Court) and Sherry Statman (Municipal Court), District Attorney Margaret Moore, County Attorney David Escamilla, and Sheriff Sally Hernandez. Garza cited “the spread of COVID-19” and requested that the officials act “to implement critical changes to how criminal justice is administered in Travis County.”

The changes listed by Garza included: ending arrests for misdemeanors and state jail felonies (with exceptions for public safety); jail release for all inmates (except for public safety); guarantee safe attorney access and adequate health care, and related measures. Garza added, “I want to be clear: most of the policies I am asking the County and City to implement are things we should do irrespective of the threat from COVID-19.”

Garza’s list of requests was about a page in length. Later that Monday* [Correction: posted Friday, March 13; see below], a nine-page list of “demands” was released by a smorgasbord of activist organizations (Grassroots Leadership, the Texas Fair Defense Project, Garza’s Workers Defense Project, and many others) and a couple dozen local activists.