Austin and Orlando Elect Prosecutors Who Vow to Fight Mass Incarceration

Wins by José Garza and Monique Worrell add to a series of victories for criminal justice reformers this year.

Daniel Nichanian   |    November 3, 2020

Monique Worrell

This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

Wins by José Garza and Monique Worrell add to a series of victories for criminal justice reformers this year.

Austin and Orlando sent progressive candidates to their prosecutor’s offices tonight.

José Garza and Monique Worrell each vowed during their campaigns to reduce the prison population, and their wins add to a series of victories for criminal justice reformers this year. Many other prosecutorial elections were at play today, though the results are still unknown. 

Garza, a former public defender who works as a labor and immigrants’ rights attorney, won in Travis County (Austin), Texas, against Republican Martin Harry. Garza won the Democratic nomination in July after ousting the incumbent district attorney in a heated primary.

Worrell, a former defense attorney, prevailed in Florida’s Ninth Judicial District, home to Orange (Orlando) and Osceola counties, against Jose Torroella, an independent. She will replace Aramis Ayala, the departing prosecutor who did not seek re-election; Worrell won a tough Democratic primary in August.

“Garza and Worrell were elected because their messaging around public health, public safety and the fact that we cannot prosecute and incarcerate our way out of society’s problems resonated with voters,” Tiffany Cabán, who narrowly lost the DA election in Queens in 2019 and has since worked with the Working Families Party to help progressive candidates, told The Appeal: Political Report in an email. The WFP endorsed Garza and Worrell this year. 

For both candidates, the summer primaries were the main events since these jurisdictions lean Democratic.

Still, their general election opponents resorted to tough-on-crime messaging to overcome these odds. Torroella called himself an “old fashioned” candidate espousing “law and order” values, and said people should be prosecuted more harshly. Harry has attacked Garza for threatening safety with his promise to release more people who are detained pretrial. 

Garza’s victory is a milestone for national debates on drug policy, and more broadly for criminal justice reform in Texas. 

He ran on a promise of declining to prosecute cases of drug possession and sale for under one gram, a policy that would effectively decriminalize small quantities of any controlled substance in Austin.

“Using our resources to prosecute these offenses increases the likelihood that people will commit future crimes, and that makes our community less safe,” he told the Political Report in June.

Cate Graziani, policy and operations director of the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, told the Political Report in July that “there’s a huge opportunity having a DA who understands that the war on drugs is harmful,” In 2017, the county saw nearly 1,700 cases where drug possession of less than one gram was the primary reason for arrest, according to a report released by a coalition of advocacy groups, including the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance. An additional 1,200 arrests involved possession alongside other charges. African Americans were a vastly disproportionate share of these arrests.

This pattern was a major issue in the primary between Garza and Margaret Moore, the incumbent whom he defeated by more than 35 percentage points in a runoff in July. Garza also criticized Moore for failing to hold police officers accountable. The runoff unfolded against the backdrop of protests over Moore’s handling of the killing of Mike Ramos by an Austin police officer in April.

Garza’s win was boosted by heavy local organizing against police brutality and mass incarceration in Travis County. Through his work with the Workers Defense Project, Garza  himself took part in efforts to change county practices. Moore took a more defiant attitude toward the demands of protesters.

Garza expressed support for fully ending the use of cash bail and has committed to never seek the death penalty, a significant promise in Texas. He also said he would rarely pursue reducing the resort to sentences of more than 20 years. And his call for shrinking the criminal legal system extends beyond drug policy. 

“We use our criminal justice system like a rug that we sweep our problems underneath so we don’t have to look at them,” he said in June. 

In implementing his platform, Garza will have to contend with Republican state officials who at times try to pre-empt local policies adopted by Travis County, though he says he is undaunted and eager to show an alternative politics on criminal justice is possible in Texas.

Worrell, too, will face the prospect of intervention by Florida’s Republican officials opposed to criminal justice reform. Her campaign unfolded in the shadow of the retaliation Ayala experienced over the last four years.

Elected in 2016, Ayala soon announced a policy of never seeking the death penalty. Republican Governor Rick Scott stripped her of cases eligible for the death penalty, a move that went to the state Supreme Court, which upheld it. Ayala, who is one in a number of Black women elected as prosecutors nationwide who have faced retaliation for promoting criminal justice reform, pointed to that war of attrition last year to explain her decision to not seek re-election. 

Worrell did not reiterate Ayala’s pledge to never seek the death penalty, and she told the Political Report in July she is aware that opponents of reform “will use any means necessary.” But the other candidates she ran against in the primary indicated they were more likely to roll back Ayala’s policies, and Worrell ran as the candidate aligned with the incumbent.

Her victory is a vindication for Ayala, who endorsed her. Worrell worked as the head of the conviction integrity unit in Ayala’s office.

One of Worrell’s most significant commitments involves youth justice: She said she would not use Florida prosecutors’ unchecked discretion to “direct file” a case involving a minor in adult court, unless there is “loss of life.” As Samantha Schuyler wrote for the Political Report in July, “Florida transfers more children into the adult system than any other state in the country,” mostly for nonviolent offenses. Worrell has also said she would reduce the prosecution of low-level offenses associated with poverty and marijuana possession. 

Worrell also participated in Black Lives Matter protests in Orlando in June. “If you want to change the system, you must change the player,” she said in a speech at a rally

Even as Garza and Worrell’s platforms staked very different levels of commitment to upending their local criminal legal systems, with Garza outlining more specific positions on how he will change local policies, Cabán took heart at both of their successes.

“Progressives winning DA races are a clear indicator that our movement is growing,” she said. “This is about more than just harm reduction—a worthwhile goal in and of itself—it is a larger paradigm shift around the definition of public safety.”