Shortly after Austin, Texas, police arrested a suspect in connection with two killings last month, pro-police forces were quick to blame Travis County District Attorney José Garza. One of the voices rushing to denounce Garza was Justin Berry, a high-ranking Austin cop and former police union official who was appointed last year by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, a regulatory body.
Berry, the former vice president of the Austin Police Association, tweeted that Garza was responsible for the two Austin homicides because Garza had previously dismissed several charges against the man accused of the killings and ensured “the immediate release of a known violent serial offender.”
“Had DA Garza taken his own words serious to be hard on gun crimes, he would not have secured a plea deal that would immediately release this known violent offender back into the streets,” Berry wrote. “These 2 live [sic] would still be with their loved ones today had DA Garza believed in his oath of office and was committed to the safety of our community.”
The Twitter thread followed a trend in the ongoing debate over recent criminal justice reforms. Police routinely insist that reforms expose communities to violent crime — claims that are seized upon by right-wing politicians to both push carceral policies and craft narratives for election campaigns. Yet when these narratives come under scrutiny, they often fall apart. That’s what happened in the Austin case: Garza was not the one who released the suspect.
“Lots of people have a political axe to grind.”
The Twitter thread by Berry, who was among 19 officers indicted by Garza last year for using excessive force during the 2020 George Floyd protests, was wrong on some facts and omitted key details that place some of the blame on Abbott, Berry’s political ally.
“It’s no surprise that one of those indicted officers, who the governor then appointed to serve on the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, is leading the charge against Garza,” said Jessica Brand, a progressive strategist who advises reform-minded prosecutors. “Lots of people have a political axe to grind.”
In a statement to The Intercept, Garza’s office said, “The Travis County District Attorney’s Office makes sentencing decisions in every case that are reliant on the state being able to house, feed, and watch people in their care. It is a tragedy that two lives were lost due to systemic failures in our broken criminal justice system.” (Spokespeople for Abbott and the Austin Police Department did not respond to requests for comment.)
The case around the murder defendant, Abraham Kulor, is much more complicated than Berry’s tweets let on. Before the two killings he stands accused of, Kulor had been arrested and subsequently released. Instead of Garza releasing Kulor, he was freed by a Texas judge.
Though he is now 18 and charged as a legal adult in the murders, circumstances of a previous case had led Garza to place Kulor back in the juvenile justice system to finish out a sentence he had yet to serve. The Texas Juvenile Justice Department, however, had no place to put him. The department had announced in June that it would temporarily stop accepting new kids into their facilities, citing severe staffing shortages.
Two months earlier, Abbott had cut $30 million from the department’s budget to fund Operation Lone Star, a hastily planned and poorly run initiative to target and arrest undocumented migrants at the southern border. The governor has cut hundreds of millions of dollars from state agencies — including the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees the state’s juvenile justice system — to fund Operation Lone Star.
The Texas Tribune linked Abbott’s budget cuts to the Texas Juvenile Justice System’s staffing issues. In a statement to The Intercept, the department’s communications director Barbara Kessler repeated the assertion she had made to the Tribune that the cuts had a “net-zero impact” on the agency’s budget. Kessler said no juveniles were released just because of staffing issues. She added that the department didn’t turn kids away, and they remained in county facilities.
“Texas’s decision last year to cut tens of millions of dollars from its juvenile justice agency to fund its cruel war on immigrants plunged an already broken system into chaos,” Miriam Krinsky, the executive director of the advocacy group Fair and Just Prosecution, told The Intercept. The budget cuts were made in the name of public safety, she said, “but anyone familiar with the research on crime prevention and youth brain development could have seen that it would have the opposite effect: When we refuse to invest in our kids, we endanger our communities.”
At the time, Kulor was facing an order by the authorities to be held for an earlier sentence; the order stipulated he be in juvenile custody until the age of 21. Garza’s office decided that Kulor should finish the sentence so that he could access treatment and services reserved for juvenile offenders.
Kulor then pleaded guilty in the aggravated robbery case and was given a sentence of deferred adjudication, a form of probation that allows him to receive supervision instead of going to jail or prison. He was meant to finish his juvenile sentence and, upon release, start probation for the aggravated robbery charge.
Kulor was transferred to juvenile custody at a short-term detention facility, where he was held for two months. With no place to put him long term, though, a judge terminated Kulor’s juvenile probation in September 2022.
A judge revoked the defendant’s probation in the aggravated robbery case after his most recent murder charges. Now 18 years old, Kulor is in custody on charges for the two murders and has a hearing scheduled for May 2.
“Unfortunately, we too often fail to invest in evidence-based responses to youth crime, instead falling back on punitive practices that undermine public safety.”
Kulor’s case illustrates the failures of the criminal justice system to adequately care for and treat children, said Krinsky of Fair and Just Prosecution.
“Ample research and evidence have made clear that young people’s brains are still developing in ways that limit their capacity for rational decision-making and are significantly altered by traumatic events or toxic stress,” Krinsky said. “Age-appropriate, compassionate and trauma-informed practices can promote healing and rehabilitation for young people who come into contact with the criminal legal system, enabling kids to grow out of criminal behavior. Unfortunately, we too often fail to invest in evidence-based responses to youth crime, instead falling back on punitive practices that undermine public safety by re-traumatizing kids and intensifying the very factors that led them to become involved in crime in the first place.”
Garza is doing what he can within his office to meet these challenges, Krinsky said, “but he can’t address these systemic failures alone.”
Police criticism of Garza has ramped up since he undertook his efforts to prosecute their misconduct. A few months after his indictment, Berry, the Austin officer tweeting inaccurate information about the Kulor case, was named by Abbott to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.
Garza has become the target of frequent criticisms by police for purportedly rising crime, though overall personal and property crime in Austin decreased from 2021 to 2022. In some cases, police declined to investigate complaints or make arrests, claiming that Garza’s office won’t prosecute the cases. At the time, Garza’s office sent a letter to the city manager asking for an update on increasing reports that cops were declining to make arrests. The district attorney received no response.
Garza was elected in 2020 on pledges to end cash bail and expand alternatives to incarceration. While his office has drawn criticism from Abbott and other Republican officials for implementing criminal justice reforms, Garza has also been a vocal critic of Operation Lone Star.
Abbott launched the initiative during his reelection campaign in March 2021 and has since used a statewide declaration of disaster to deploy more officers at the southern border. So far, more than 10,000 members of the National Guard and the Texas Department of Public Safety have been sent to the border. Military personnel described the project as rushed and poorly planned, and it has been linked to at least four deaths by suicide among soldiers since its launch.
Last year in court, Garza’s office backed the claims of an undocumented man seeking asylum in the U.S. who was arrested and jailed by officers deployed with Operation Lone Star. Garza’s office supported the man’s claims that Abbott’s initiative violated the Constitution by intruding on the powers of immigration enforcement delegated to the federal government and said it would not defend the state in the case. A judge in that case became the first in Texas to rule that Abbott’s program was unconstitutional and led to a slew of similar legal filings challenging the policy.
“D.A. Garza has long argued that Operation Lone Star was both immoral and bad for public safety,” Brand, the progressive strategist, said. “He’s also pushed for more police accountability in a department with a bad track record of resorting to unnecessary violence.”