Earlier this week I asked the question, “Where is José Garza?” I was specifically referring to Garza refusing to respond to written questions from the Austin Independent and not even responding to a request to his campaign for an interview. We are, however, far from the only people and media that Garza is avoiding. For instance he declined to participate in a discussion moderated by Judy Maggio, the beloved and legendary former KVUE anchor. That left Garza’s Democratic primary opponent Jeremy Sylestine and Republican Daniel Betts to talk with Maggio for an hour. Sylestine maintains that Garza also declined a challenge for a televised debate.

On a related front, a group of 10 Austin area elected officials sent out a letter on February 21 trying to dictate the terms of discussion in the Garza-Sylestine race. Led by Garza’s mentor, Congressman Greg Casar, the 10 sent a letter to Sylestine demanding, among other things, that he stop “parroting Republican talking points and attacks.” They did not, however, list any specifics of where they felt Sylestine was doing that.  We will discuss the letter further in other articles. For here I will note that this is a clear attempt to limit the parameters of discussion in the District Attorney race and specifically to limit what Sylestine can discuss on the campaign trail. Oddly they do this without mentioning anything specific that he should not say. (By the way who granted these ten elected officials the authority to dictate what can be discussed within a Democratic primary?)

The three elements I discussed above all have something in common. Refusing to answer questions, refusing to debate, and trying to dictate what Sylestine can talk about are all attempts to avoid discussion of José Garza’s record.

As a matter of fact, I challenge all ten elected officials who signed that letter to come out and publicly defend Garza’s record in regard to his treatment of the victims of violent crime, in particular female victims of violent crime. 

By the way, refusing to debate your challengers is, well, pretty Republican. In fact refusing to debate is — dare I say — Trumpian. I mean the Republican primaries so far have featured a series of debates where the frontrunner, Donald Trump, has famously refused to debate opponents. Is José Garza “parroting” this Republican, Trumpian strategy? It sure looks like it.

We will return to Garza’s record regarding violent crime and the victims of violent crime in a future installment. For today — at the risk of parroting Republican talking points — let’s look at how Garza’s attempts to use statistics to prove he is tough on violent crime collapsed under the scrutiny of a KXAN reporting team.

KXAN’s story came out on November 21 last year, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. So some people may have missed it. And, it is worth repeating as people begin to vote.

‘“We are attorneys, not statisticians.’”

The story begins at Garza’s reelection campaign kickoff in August. As KXAN described it, “Flanked by supporters and other top county leaders, José Garza announced his re-election campaign for Travis County District Attorney with a strong message: ‘Across the street [meaning at the Capital], they can play politics with our public safety, but here in this community, together, we choose to act.’” As evidence for that claim Garza maintained, ‘“We have increased the conviction rate for all acts of violence from 38% to 91%.”’ 

(The photo at the top is of Garza’s election announcement, from his Twitter feed. Faces in the crowd include: Council Member Vanessa Fuentes; Chris Harris of the Austin Justice Coalition and Equity Action; Council Members Zo Qadri and Chito Vela; Chas Moore, Director of the Austin Justice Coalition and a police abolitionist; County Attorney Delia Garza; County Judge Andy Brown; Council Member José Velasquez; Ken Zarifis, head of Education Action; and Precinct 5 Constable Carlos Lopez.)

KXAN continued, “In the weeks that followed that August re-election announcement, his campaign touted the same increase in emails to supporters, on social media and on his candidate website.”

Those are strong words, from a crusading District Attorney. It sounds like a DA’s office that is really tough on violent crime. Politically, a 91% violent crime conviction rate would certainly work to refute claims that Garza’s office is soft on violent crime and violent criminals. As a matter of fact, a statistic like that, if accurate, could be politically devastating to those accusing Garza of being soft on violent criminals. It carried the possibility of making those critics look like shrill purveyors of fear and misinformation. Additionally, the claim makes it appear that Garza’s office is way more effective at obtaining convictions for violent crimes than his predecessor.

Folks at KXAN, however, seem to have suspected that Garza was himself playing politics with public safety; specifically with the violent crime conviction rate he cited at his reelection announcement. Among other things, the KXAN team wondered whether conviction rates are a meaningful performance measure for a District Attorney’s Office. So they contacted David LaBahn, who is the president of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, a national association with office in Washington D.C. and nearby Arlington, Virginia. 

Bahn told KXAN that campaigning DAs often use such measures, particularly related to violent crime, at election time. He added, as summarized by KXAN, “the association (of Prosecuting Attorneys) recommends prosecutors avoid using conviction rates as a measure of success for several reasons.” Those reasons include, once again as summarized by KXAN, “the role of a prosecutor is to seek a just outcome in a particular incident, not simply to win the case. Beyond that, he pointed to the many variables that could go into calculating a conviction rate – meaning the public would need to know exactly how a rate was calculated to understand what it means.”

Then quoting LaBahn directly, the story continued, ‘“The trouble with a conviction rate is — it’s really — it’s a data point. Right? It doesn’t show you the whole of what the situation was. What did you put in it? You can get really thick on this. And what did you get out of it?”’

OK, the head of a national prosecutors’ association doesn’t recommend use of the calculation Travis County DA José Garza used in his reelection kickoff. That seems important and calls Garza’s use of the statistic into question. On the other hand, it could also be something on which reasonable minds will disagree. KXAN reported both sides and citizens can form their own opinions. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.

What About the Numerator and Denominator?

Oh, but there’s more. Taking off from LaBahn’s question, ‘“What did you put in it,”’ the KXAN team explored what Garza and his staff put into the calculation. To do so KXAN asked Garza for “the raw data underpinning these percentages and asked for the formula used to calculate them.” Uh oh.

Then, once again as KXAN put it, “Over a series of conversations, his (Garza’s) office explained they looked at the total number of convictions secured for a certain class of offenses during each listed year, regardless of the year the case was received [emphasis added by the Austin Independent]. Then, the office divided this number of convictions by the total number of cases received for that same class of offenses in the same year, that were ultimately closed.”

The KXAN report continues, “For example, the office took the 1,977 convictions in violent, sexual or weapons-related cases obtained by the office in 2022, regardless of what year each case was received by the office. Then, it divided that number by the 2,165 of those same types of cases that the office received in 2022 and later closed – a calculation that comes out to 91%.”

But wait a minute. Is it appropriate to include cases for more than one year in an annual percentage calculation? KXAN wondered the same thing. So they called an expert who, in their description, is “a criminologist and professor at the University of Miami” and “has worked with police chiefs, district attorneys, and public defenders to try and improve data collection and use in the criminal justice system.” The expert “also served as director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics for one year, after being appointed by President Biden last year.” His name is Alex Piquero. 

So what did Piquero think? First of all, as KXAN put it, Piquero, “[in perhaps an intentional understatement] said he had never seen this specific formula used to calculate a conviction rate.” KXAN says Piquero also, “noted the importance of measuring the outcome of the same batch of cases over time when calculating a conviction rate — which he did at the federal level by taking the number of cases filed in a year and seeing how many of those resulted in a conviction sometime in the future.” 

KXAN then quoted Piquero, ‘“It could be in that year, but it could also be in that next year, but you’re still following the exact same case over time.”’

In other words, don’t combine cases from multiple years and calculate them as a percentage of a single year, as Garza and his team did. 

Or, as the KXAN story continued, “In mathematical terms, Piquero said the numerator should always be a function of the denominator. Otherwise, the equation contains a number of cases that are not comparable. For example, the 1,977 convictions in the district attorney’s method includes more than 1,500 convictions in cases received prior to 2022. Those cases are not included in the 2,165 received cases that made up the denominator in this equation.”

KXAN then brought LaBahn of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys back into the story. In KXAN’s summary, LaBahn, “agreed (with Piquero) that if an office chooses to calculate them, it does need to follow the outcomes of the same group of cases.”   

KXAN then quoted LaBahn directly, ‘“You can’t take a case from 2018 and use it as a conviction in 2023. Unless you’re using other cases from 2018 and following them longitudinally. So, there’s got to be a relationship between the top number and the bottom number, and it has to be a causal relationship.” 

LaBahn concluded, “Otherwise, you’re engaged in very much fuzzy math.”’

So, there’s got to be a relationship between the top number and the bottom number, and it has to be a causal relationship. . . Otherwise, you’re engaged in very much fuzzy math.”’

David LaBahn, President of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys

Next, as the KXAN story explains, “KXAN brought Garza’s team the formula proposed by Piquero and used by the bureau” i.e. a formula using cases from the same year and tracking them over time to determine a percentage.

KXAN continues, “In response, Garza expressed concern about how open cases could influence the percentages, particularly when calculating rates in recent years — when more cases are likely to still be making their way through the court system.”

Garza explained, as quoted by KXAN, ‘“Because we have been in office for about two and a half years, we don’t have the benefit of the long look of how the cases resolve. So it was important to us to be able to give the best snapshot we can for the two years that we’ve been in office.”’ 

But, “By November, KXAN investigators noticed the 91% statistic had been removed from Garza’s campaign website.” KXAN contacted Garza and interviewed him about his thinking in removing the claim from his campaign website. That’s when the DA explained, ‘“You know, at the end of the day, we are attorneys, not statisticians.”’ 

Whether Garza and his team are “lawyers” or “statisticians” or both, it seems fair to ask: Would the statistics they are putting out to the public hold up in court?

And, is it any wonder that José Garza doesn’t want to debate or answer questions.


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