Why is District Attorney José Garza Refusing to Publicly Debate Democratic Candidate Jeremy Sylestine?

After Dodging a Televised Debate Opportunity, Sylestine Asks ‘What is Garza Hiding?’

AUSTIN, Texas – Former public defender, prosecutor, and Democratic candidate for Travis County District Attorney Jeremy Sylestine released the following statement today challenging Democratic incumbent José Garza to a debate. This week, Garza turned down the opportunity for a televised debate with a local media outlet ahead of the March 5 Primary Election.

“Travis County voters deserve transparency and accountability when it comes to the District Attorney they’ve elected,” Sylestine said. “Yet, our current DA, José Garza, continues to dodge opportunities for a public debate. What is Mr. Garza hiding?

“Today, I am challenging José Garza once again to agree to a public debate,” Sylestine continued. “It’s time to face the voters, victims, and survivors and take responsibility for the results of his failed policies and performance over the last three years.”

Background on Garza’s Record Since Taking Office

CBS Austin found that Garza has given hundreds of plea deals for 1,007 violent crimes, including 120 in cases of child sexual abuse. In December 2023, Texas Office of Court Administration data showed Garza and the Travis County District Attorney’s office had given hundreds of plea deals including 7 pleas for capital murder, 39 pleas for murder, 841 for aggravated assault or attempted murder, 120 for indecency with or sexual assault of a child. (“‘They spit in my face’ local family outraged after man who shot them gets plea deal from Travis County DA’s Office,” Paige Hubard, CBS Austin, 12/13/2023)

A KVUE analysis shows Garza rejected 735% more felony cases than his predecessor. The report shows that within months of being in office, Garza had implemented a new policy to throw out cases including serious felony charges like aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, assault of a pregnant woman, aggravated robbery, and more. In the first four months, Garza rejected 142 felony cases, a 735% increase from the same timeframe in 2020. (“A new policy means Travis County prosecutors are rejecting hundreds of criminal cases,” Bryce Newberry, KVUE, 7/26/2021)

According to a KXAN investigative report, Garza is dropping felony cases at a higher rate than his predecessor. KXAN reported that Garza’s office dismissed or rejected around 12,700 felony charges between 2021 and 2022, his first two years in office. That was higher than the 10,400 dismissed and rejected in 2018 and 2019, during the previous DA’s administration. In 2021 and 2022, Garza’s office had declined to prosecute 7,600 cases within 12 months of receiving them, 49% of all cases closed during that time frame. Between 2018 and 2019, the prior District Attorney had declined to prosecute 7,109 cases within 12 months, 26% of the 26,538 closed during that time frame. (“Is Travis County DA Garza dropping more felonies? Here’s what the data show,” Avery Travis, KXAN 5/23/2023)

According to Travis County Criminal Court data, Garza is closing cases at a much lower rate than his predecessor and has seen a significant decrease in convictions relative to his predecessor. Between 2021 and 2024, Garza’s office disposed of 68,137 cases, a 47.5% decrease compared to the three years under his predecessor. The decrease in the number of convictions was even larger. Under Garza, there was a 61.32% decrease in the number of convictions, and an 82.92% decrease in the number of court cases that went to trial that resulted in a conviction.

Garza misrepresented his conviction rate. In November 2023, KXAN released an investigative report that found Garza had publicized inaccurate and misleading statistics on his conviction rate. When Garza launched his re-election campaign in August 2023, he claimed that he oversaw an increase in the conviction rate for violent crimes from 38% to 91%, and highlighted the increase on his candidate website, social media, and in emails to supporters. After KXAN released its report in November 2023, Garza removed the claim about his conviction rate from his campaign website. (“‘We are attorneys, not statisticians.’ Travis County DA reviewing conviction data after KXAN reporting,” Avery Travis and Dalton Huey, KXAN, 11/21/2023)

Since Garza has taken office, the number of criminal incidents in Austin has increased dramatically, especially those involving murder and motor vehicle theft. In Garza’s first three years in office, the city saw a 127% increase in the number of incidents involving murder and a 119% increase in the motor vehicle theft rate. In addition, aggravated assaults increased by 29.39%, and burglary increased by 6.05%.