Monday, February 12, 2024

What was that guy's name again? Attacks on a progressive DA by a philistine

An old-school tough-on-crime campaign has been launched in the Travis County Democratic primary by Some Guy I've Never Heard Of named Jeremy Silverbelly, or Silverspoon, or something. To be honest. I never can remember his name. He's just the guy a bunch of Republican donors picked to try to oust José Garza. 

In the interest of full disclosure, I've been paid a small sum to help Garza's campaign with political messaging. But long-time Grits readers will be aware that my interest in supporting him goes beyond the financial, and José's campaign did not see nor approve of this blog post prior to publication. 

Polls mostly show Austinites feel safe and one only need go downtown on any weekend, day or night, to see that's true. The central business district hasn't fully recovered during the week from the effects of work-from-home, but that's because of economics, not fear of crime. Weekend foot traffic tells the story of a bustling town unafraid of its own shadow.

Mr. Silversuckle can only win if voters are hair-on-fire afraid and believe that "Soft on Crime" policies by the District Attorney are enabling the forces they fear. So we get stories like this doozy from KXAN, a local TV station which my wife refers to on Facebook, incidentally, as the "Mouthpiece for the Police State." They put out a deeply misleading attack piece on Garza that intentionally and somewhat blatantly avoided any and all apples-to-apples comparisons to focus exclusively on red herrings.

Their central claim, summed up in the headline, was that, "More felony convictions in Travis County end up in local jail than anywhere else in Texas," with the reporter placing blame for this supposed affront on José Garza's shoulders. Mr. Silversurfer and the presumptive Republican nominee (more on him in a minute) were the main people commenting on the data, placing their sights squarely on the incumbent DA.

The story, however, compares Garza's stats on who gets probation/jail/prison, etc. to other Texas counties, not to his predecessor. The exact same story could have been written about Margaret Moore, and Travis County DAs going back to Ronnie Earle (let's please all just agree to forget the ignominious Lehmberg era, though of course, that was also a legacy of the Ronnie Earle era).

Yes, Harris, Dallas, Bexar, etc., utilize prison much more than Travis County, but it has ever been thus. In 2019, for example, the last year before COVID skewed everyone's numbers, the Travis County DA under Margaret Moore sent 20% of felony defendants to prison; under José Garza it was 16%, according to KXAN. But comparing him to jurisdictions that incarcerate at closer to or above statewide rates, instead of his predecessor, for whom Mr. SillyPutty worked, is simply disingenuous to the point of spreading misinformation.

Nearly the entire difference between the number of people sent to local jail rather than prison under Margaret Moore compared to José Garza can be explained by how Garza's office is handling state-jail-felony drug cases, with almost all of those ending up on probation or serving county jail time compared to Margaret Moore's tenure. But that's about it. Otherwise, the patterns under Margaret were remarkably similar to how José's office runs. But supposedly, according to Mr. Silverhair, those were the halcyon tough-on-crime days and José is some radical.

In reality, as I predicted when he was elected, the scope of change that's possible to enact from that position has been signifant, even important, but modest. José has done what he can, but the position is limited by a myriad other actors in the system and the particular role that prosecutors play in it. He's showing us the limits of what can be accomplished as a "progressive prosecutor" under the existing system. And since José himself is a rather wonky, thoughtful, careful little dude, he's doing what he can within the system, not attempting to break it.

That's why, for example, he dropped charges against police officers for shooting protesters after the city belatedly reported that supervisors distributed faulty munitions, knowing what could happen. The city did not tell the DA this until AFTER the statute of limitations ran out on the supervisors' decisions, and it would have been against his charge to "seek justice" to hold officers accountable in cases for which their supervisors were more culpable. There are certainly factions of Democrats who wanted to see those cases go forward. But José did the right thing by dismissing them.

Yet another example comes from what to me is a particularly sad quarter. Daryl Slusher, a former journalist turned city councilmember turned career-city bureaucrat turned neocon curmudgeon, wrote up another KXAN story from last year trying to smear José, but omtting even the nod to honest reporting their reporter made in that story.

The story is about a sex offender who attacked several women in public settings. He ended up with a sentence of 10 years probation, a requirement to undergo sex-offender treatment, and was placed on the sex-offender registry. Reported KXAN at the time (though omitted in Slusher's version): 

Those who accused Rios do feel a sense of justice, though they wish he had received a tougher sentence than probation.

“It’s difficult to sit in the courtroom and listen to these difficult experiences that they went through,” Jorge Vela, Rios’ attorney, said. “We recognize that, this is not lost on us. This was a deal that was reached with the district attorney’s office after 16 months of negotiation. It took into account my client’s lack of criminal history…There are different purposes in the criminal justice system, and one of those is rehabilitation.”

Vela said Rios is receiving sex-offender treatment. Rios was on house arrest for six months prior to being on probation now, according to Vela.

“There will be no more survivors,” Judge Karen Sage of the 299th Criminal District Court said at the conclusion of Rios’ sentencing. “This is it. It ends here.”
Several things here stand out: First, being placed on the sex-offender registry is a serious punishment that will affect this man for the rest of his life. Characterizing that outcome as letting him "walk free," as Slusher did, is disigenuous in the extreme. Second, I think most people don't fully appreciate what's associated with sex-offender treatment in Texas. Until you've googled "penile plethysmograph," you probably don't fully grok how these ritual humiliations are anything but a slap on the wrist. 

After 16 months of evaluation -- including six months under house arrest -- Judge Karen Sage and the prosecutor on the case concluded this was the best way to hold the offender accountable, ensure he entered treatment, and end his victimizing behaviors. "It ends here" is, in fact, the outcome you want if the goal of punishment is to maximize public safety and change the behavior of offenders. If the goal is something else, Mr. Sillysack and his abettors should say what that is. Because, on its face, the only plausible one I can think of is to scare the public into voting against José.

In reality, Travis County saw a murder spike in 2020 and 2021 that mirrored national trends and caused all manner of overreaction and blaming of progressive politics. The police were never defunded but the murder spike was incessantly blamed by many of these same, disingenous voices on protesters calling for that outcome and the election of progressive prosecutors like José Garza, who took office in January 2021. Murders peaked that year, then declined, but equally interesting is the trend on "crimes against persons." These are the data from the Austin police chief's monthly report:

If we're going to blame Garza when crime increases, let's also give him credit when it goes down. Margaret Moore would have been amazed to see crimes against persons decline more than 10% on her watch, and the TV news folks would have eagerly touted her effectiveness had that occurred (it did not). But the crime decline took place under a self-avowed liberal, so we get weird, manufactured stories pretending the Texas state capitol has devolved into some dystopian hellscape.

I'm hopeful Travis County Democrats will see through these attacks and stick with José Garza, but H.L. Mencken wasn't wrong that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. That's Mr. Sillysack's only hope of defeating Garza, which is why you're seeing these attacks being planted in the press, and will soon see them (or similar ones) replicated on television. 

Okay, fine, so his name is not Sillysack, or Silverbelly, or any of these other names that keep emerging in my head. It's not my fault I can't remember the name of this cipher of a candidate backed by Republican money who applied for a job on José's leadership team but quit when Garza promoted a more qualified woman over him. 

Mr. Sillyseason's name is difficult to remember, even though he's been endorsed by the GOP DA candidate (who is encouraging Republican voters to cross over to the Democratic primary to vote against Garza). I doubt the Republicans will remember his name, either. OTOH, it doesn't matter what his name is, no one is voting for Mr. Silverstreaker. They're voting for or against José Garza.

Still, there are too many silly/silver puns and wordplay options available; I need a mnemonic to remind me of this guy's name, and I'm betting you do, too. I got it! "Sylestine." Rhymes with "philistine." 

Don't vote for him.

UPDATE: Silverbell's first negative TV ad is now up. He accuses Garza of  lenient plea deals with "more than a thousand" violent criminals, ignoring that in every jurisdiction in every state in the country, virtually all cases, violent felonies or otherwise, result in plea bargains. This couldn't be more disingenous. It's not like he's going to end plea bargaining, after all, or would even want to. It's not even an attack, really, just pure fearmongering: Say some scary words, show a darkened image of the incumbent over tense, scary music, and hope the public jumps in your direction. We'll see soon if Democratic primary voters fall for it.


  1. KVUE overlooked the "whole" universe in two ways and this has a far more serious impact. First, they drop deferred adjudication from the sentence proportions. Deferred go to CSCD for supervision just like probation. They say Dallas has 0% to probation from 2021 through 2023 - well 21,252 people got deferred adjudication, so 7718 prison, 2651 state jail, 5072 jail, and 36 shock probation PLUS 21,252 deferred is 36,729 punished and 58% punished with community supervision. Travis is 1565 prison +455 sj +5541 jail +1923 probation +31 shock prob +2509 deferred is 12,024 punished and 4463 to community supervision or 37%. Travis County has less community sentences.

    Second, these sentences are a proportion of people, um, sentenced. They compare 2021-2023 - I have 9736 convictions + 2509 Deferred + 23 Acquittal + 7733 Dismissals in Travis County: that's 20,001 disposed and 12,245 (61%) receiving a punishment (conv + def). In Harris County - I have 49,767 convictions + 23,797 Deferred + 232 Acquittals + 60,136 dismissed: that's 133,932 disposed and 73,564 (55%) receiving a punishment (conv + def). Travis County punished more.

    What an absurd data source to do any sort of inter-county comparison - the OCA District Court Data Report is (1) case based and (2) stuck with the charge level at filing. That means (1) a person going to TDC for a different offense and given time served in the jail on the lesser to just get them out will be coded as 'jail' even though they are transferring to the pen but more importantly (2) a person charged at a felony level then reduced either by plea or through more information (like you can't have a F3 DWI 3rd if you haven't had been previously convicted of a DWI - perhaps the record was unclear at filing and fixed later). These hallucinations show up the report - 30 DWI 3rd's getting deferred adjudication, nope, that's not possible unless the 30 have been filed as DWI 3 and disposed as something else. DWI can't get deferred.

    OCA also defines how these things are labelled, which is fine, but the news story didn't explore that - Agg Assault/Attempted Murder can't get a State Jail sentence (it's mostly drug and property crimes, explicitly created to exclude violent); however, the OCA report categorizes some terroristic threat and some some abandoning child offenses in this category which are state jail felonies. If Travis has a different spread of offenses than the other counties, this would also create a larger proportion going to State Jail or Probation. Felony offenses, less state jail felonies that have specific carve out sentencing options, simply do not receive local jail sentences "for real" it can only happen with data hallucinations.

    At best, these are people unfamiliar with this data source, that has full instructions online as to how it is filled out, or the criminal justice process in general.

    What a childish bunch of drivel you spewed out. I'm no longer in Travis County, having fled the insanity it's become, because of people like you, Snott (see what I did there), after being a lifelong resident of 60 years.
    Your immature attempt at humor, trying to find as many different ways to call him names, derived from mangling his surname, had the effect of making me look it up.
    And, I would vote for him, if I was still in Travis County.
    When someone has to resort to name calling, it's because they lack truly relevant points.
    Whatever Jose Gazonga (see what I did there, purely to emulate YOUR immaturity) paid you to promote him - he is due a refund.

  3. @2/13: The point of the surname joke is that you HAD to look it up. Nobody knows who tf the guy is.

    @2/12, 1:45: Excellent points about the data being used. Folks like our other, holier than thou commenter who left town are offended at many things, but seemingly NOT at smears based on outright lies or dubious premises.

  4. If this was a Republican DA it would be "DA saves state taxpayers millions by utilizing county sentencing for State Jail Felonies, avoiding large costs to the State for State Jail Facilities."