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2018 Election Preview: District Attorney of Bexar County, Texas

San Antonio DA candidate pledges to put ‘real teeth’ into cite-and-release program

San Antonio DA candidate pledges to put ‘real teeth’ into cite-and-release program

Daniel Nichanian

Bexar County, which contains San Antonio, will soon have a new district attorney. That much has been clear since the Democratic primary, where Joe Gonzales defeated incumbent Nico LaHood. The Appeal described LaHood in March as a “death-penalty championing, Islam-bashing vaccine skeptic.” Gonzales now faces Republican nominee Tylden Shaeffer. Both men used to work in the district attorney’s office and are now defense attorneys.

Gonzales has emphasized his commitment to reforming the criminal justice system. “Part of my whole progressive philosophy about restorative justice is to give people an opportunity to avoid convictions, avoid being straddled with having convictions on their records,” he said in October. At the same forum, Shaeffer equated talk of restorative justice with “soft on crime” policies. He has similarly pitted criminal justice reforms against public safety elsewhere. “We can’t solve every single one of society’s inequities,” he said in March. “The number one goal is to safeguard the community.”

This contrast has sparked more specific disagreements—starting with policies toward marijuana. Marijuana prosecutions have increased in the county in recent years, according to data compiled by the Justice Collaborative. (The Appeal and the Justice Collaborative are a fiscally sponsored project of Tides Advocacy.) In 2018, Bexar County began a cite-and-release program that allows law enforcement officers to issue citations instead of making arrests over possession of small amounts of marijuana. But its effect has been limited because of various restrictions and because defendants need to pay a $250 fee to participate in this diversion program, aggravating the two-track justice system.

Gonzales said in October that he wants to “put some real teeth into the cite-and-release program” so that “people don’t languish in jail while they’re waiting to get their cases resolved.” Shaeffer has been critical of cite-and-release policies.

Gonzales also proposes pursuing bail reform. He says that he would seek personal recognizance bonds, which allow people to be released without posting bail, more frequently; his website also features a vague commitment to seek “reasonable bail.” Shaeffer has voiced skepticism that the county needs to reform its bail system.

The two also disagree on whether local law enforcement should cooperate with federal immigration authorities. Shaeffer backs the 2017 law (Senate Bill 4) that bars sanctuary policies and enables local officers to ask about immigration status, whereas Gonzales has warned that the law would have “chilling effects.”

You can listen to the entire candidate forum held on Texas Public Radio in October here; I found the exchanges on how to define restorative justice (around the half-hour mark) especially enlightening.

Update: Joe Gonzales won the district attorney election on Nov. 6.