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Preview: Election races for Travis County district attorney and sheriff

Some races on the November ballot could have a big impact on the criminal justice system, including the race for Travis County DA and sheriff.

AUSTIN, Texas — People across the country have taken to the streets for months in protest against police brutality and how some officer-involved deaths have been handled by the criminal justice system. 

But some races on the ballot could make a difference on how cases are dealt with in the future, including the race for Travis County district attorney, and the race for Travis County sheriff.

Who is on the ballot

A new district attorney will be chosen by voters after incumbent Margaret Moore conceded to Democrat Jose Garza, who beat Moore by more than 40,000 votes during the July primary runoff race. 

Garza will now go against Republican Martin Harry

For Travis County sheriff, the incumbent, Sheriff Sally Hernandez, a Democrat, will take on Republican Raul Vargas.  

Delia Garza, the soon to be former Mayor Pro Tem of the Austin City Council, will run unopposed to become the new Travis County attorney.

The election race for Travis County district attorney

Before the July runoff, Margaret Moore encountered a few issues that sparked concern, including criticism over how she handled sexual assault cases, with the Austin Firefighters Association advocating for her to be pushed out of office. 

Carsten Andresen, an assistant professor for the Department of Criminal Justice at St. Edward's University, didn't comment on Moore's performance, but added the idea of change is what possibly drove voters to go with Jose Garza in July. 

"She had a public perception problem and she was never able to overcome that, and that is a major part of a political decision," Andresen said. "People were not just sick of the last district attorney, but they also got really excited by Jose Garza, and he sort of seems to have a fresh approach."

He added it's important to understand the record of the candidates. 

Republican Martin Harry says on the front page of his website that among other things, he wants to enhance crime prevention efforts to reduce victimization of vulnerable residents. Garza's website on the front page talks about, among other things, reimagining the district attorney's office as one that respects the dignity of communities of color and delivers justice for survivors. 

"Travis County is still sort of trying to find what its next stage is, what its identity is going to be with the district attorney," Andresen said. 

Other experts like Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer with the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, said this race could impact the future. 

"It affects the quality of justice in terms of, we are locking up far too many people for far too long, for far too many low-level offenses, and many people are staying locked up just because they can't raise enough money for bail," Deitch said. "But in addition to that, it's a huge public safety issue. We've got to ask whether we're making people worse by sending them into the criminal justice system. It affects recidivism. It affects the community safety. How do we deal with people with mental health challenges, people with substance use disorders?"

Jennifer Laurin, the Wright C Morrow Professor of Law at UT Austin said there are multiple reasons to care about the district attorney election. 

"We are citizens of Travis County, and our neighbors and fellow citizens of Travis County can be affected by decisions to prosecute or not to prosecute cases," Laurin said. "We may be victims of crime at some point in time, and so would have a stake in what decisions would be made about how to handle investigation and prosecution of a case that involves us."

She added that these races could impact taxpayer money. 

"We have a stake in this as taxpayers and how city and county resources are spent and policing, and the criminal justice system is a significant source of local spending. And so there are all sorts of reasons to care deeply about who is the person making the decisions, about which cases to prosecute," Laurin said.

The election race for Travis County sheriff

Assistant Professor Carsten Andresen said the role of sheriff is an integral part of Travis County. 

"As much as Austin is located in Travis County, they are an integral part of making sure that Austin is safe and it is a wonderful place to live," Andresen said. "So specifically, the sheriff is involved in the jails, involved in providing security in the courts. They provide enforcement activities and they also participate at county-level research projects and provide technical and research support for the county as well."

Andresen added he believes Hernandez will be strongly valued by the community because of her tenure thus far. 

One issue voters may consider this time includes how COVID-19 is handled in the jails.

"COVID doesn't discriminate which side of the bar you're on," said Senior Lecturer Michele Deitch. "People in jails – there’s a very high level of what we call 'churn.' People are going in and out of jails on a daily basis, so what happens inside is spreading to the communities and we need to make sure that we're not allowing the virus to spread rapidly inside, because otherwise the outbreak is going to remain in our community as well."

Deitch added whoever wins the County sheriff race could impact how well the virus is contained inside of the jails.

"The DA is determining whether people are staying locked up while they're awaiting trial," Deitch said, "and then the sheriff's practices and policies on how they are preventing the spread of the virus."

Professor Laurin also said the issue of COVID-19 in jails can be impacted by the election.

"That's a that's a sort of a 'right now roll' of enormous importance that that just adds to the extent to which individuals who are not themselves incarcerated, or family members or friends of incarcerated individuals, should care deeply about the conditions in which incarcerated individuals are living," Laurin said. 


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