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U.S. Senate Candidate Endorses Ayanna Pressley’s Criminal Justice Reform Plan

Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez of Texas told The Appeal about her vision for a complete overhaul of her state’s legal system.

Cristina Tzintzún RamirezCourtesy of Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez For Texas

It’s been less than two months since Representative Ayanna Pressley, a Massachusetts Democrat, announced the People’s Justice Guarantee, a sweeping proposal to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system, and it’s already taking hold across the country. 

In Texas, where more than 200,000 people are behind bars, one U.S. Senate candidate is considering the effect that Pressley’s plan would have both federally and in her state.

Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, who will appear on the Democratic primary ballot, told The Appeal she would be endorsing Pressley’s plan. (An adviser to Ramirez’s campaign who encouraged her to launch her bid also works as a consultant for The Justice Collaborative. The Appeal is a project of The Justice Collaborative.)

In an extensive interview, the Mexican-American grassroots organizer said her background has shown her that Texas needs to completely reset the way it views the role of its prisons and legal system.

“You can’t create a system that will actually be focused on truth and justice, that will be focused on not just prosecuting those who are more likely to be poor—that are more likely to be people of color—unless you overhaul the system,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez will face a number of other prominent Democrats in the March primary, including Air Force veteran M.J. Hegar and former Houston City Councilmember Amanda Edwards. Hegar told The Appeal in a statement that she supports “comprehensive criminal justice reforms to combat racial and economic disparities throughout the system,” and said bail and prosecutorial practices need to be reformed, but did not say how. Edwards said she also sees a need to “rethink the entire prison industrial complex,” and she supports overhauling the cash bail system but wouldn’t commit to ending it altogether. She said she thinks voting rights should be restored to people when they leave prison but not during their incarceration.

Ramirez’s plans align with Pressley’s and are some of the most progressive in the nation when it comes to reshaping the legal system. She said she supports ending cash bail, felony disenfranchisement, and the death penalty. She supports decriminalizing sex work and creating systems to support communities decimated by mass incarceration. She discussed those proposals with The Appeal. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ayanna Pressley’s platform for criminal justice reform is one of the most progressive proposals to remake the criminal legal system we’ve seen in U.S. politics. Why did you decide to endorse it?

I’m a child that grew up in the ’90s. I was born in 1982, so I remember growing up in the time period when our whole nation was focused on “lock them up and throw away the key.” There’s been discussions, especially in Texas, about how to reform criminal justice, but it’s been around the margins and edges and hasn’t really gotten to how to make a criminal justice system that is community-based and that actually seeks truth in justice instead of just vengeance. I feel like this is one of the first platforms that tries to get at that.

We need to look at the criminal justice system from why people are incarcerated, how people get incarcerated, and how to overhaul the entire system to actually keep our communities safe and seek justice and truth.

You think it requires a complete overhaul?

I think Shaun King says it best. The criminal justice we’ve built is doing exactly what it was designed to do. Yes, it disproportionately locks up people that are poor people and people of color. You can’t create a system that will actually be focused on truth and justice, that will be focused on not just prosecuting those who are more likely to be poor—that are more likely to be people of color—unless you overhaul the system.

Pressley’s platform is a plan for reform on the federal level. Your background is in grassroots organizing, so I’m curious how you think this proposal would translate into local reforms, especially in Texas.

When I think about the movements around criminal justice nationally, I feel like Texas is really the epicenter of that. We’re a state that led the movement to be tough on crime. We’re a state that has one of the highest incarceration rates. We’re a state that has gone full throttle on the death penalty and putting people to death. Much of that has been on the state level. I see my job as senator to lead at the federal level but then to support strong grassroots movements in Texas that create the conversation and the vision of what’s possible and what should be in our criminal justice system.

What role do you think prosecutors play in your vision for reform? After all, it’s largely because of hardline prosecutors in Texas who have set policy for many decades that the state is such a large incarcerator.

Why I think the People’s Justice Guarantee is really important is that it looks at things from cash bail to how long people can be incarcerated, three strikes and you’re out rule, rules about how we disproportionately lock up people for certain kinds of drug crimes. This has been a real holistic approach to rethinking criminal justice and I think it also sets forth a pathway for local prosecutors. So much of the criminal justice movement that we’ve seen today that has been really successful was led here in Texas by local groups like Texas Organizing Project, supported by national organizations like Color of Change, to really change our prosecutorial system.

Pressley originally called for an 80 percent reduction in the U.S. prison population and then later retracted that number, telling me she thinks we can cut our prison population even more dramatically. Would you also support a reduction of 80 percent or greater?

When we look at how many people are locked up for crimes, especially nonviolent drug offenses, you have a huge proportion of the population in our prison system. … Clearly there are pathways to letting thousands and thousands of people’s cases be reviewed and expedited very quickly to make sure we can let those people out of prison. That to me is a top priority.

Overall we have to look at how long we’ve been putting people in prison for, for what crimes, what does rehabilitation and a system that actually looks at redemption look like, because we have gone so far in the other direction and built a system around punishment and vengeance that hasn’t worked to keep our communities safer. When we build a system around redemption and rehabilitating our communities—and not just communities for people walking out of prison but supporting communities that have been really abandoned by state and federal investment and thinking about addiction as a public health crisis instead of as a criminal crisis—then we start to think about ways we could reduce the prison population significantly.

I don’t yet have a percentage but I know that when we have the highest incarceration rate in the industrialized nation and the planet, then we are not putting people in prison for the right reasons. When you look at who we’re putting in prison, we have a significant percentage that do not belong there and a significant percentage that have not been given the appropriate services by the court to leave prison.

Do you agree with Pressley that we should abolish the practice of taking away voting rights from people convicted of crimes?

I believe that every American should be allowed to vote and their right to vote should never be taken away from them, period.

Why do you think that idea is still on the fringes of the Democratic Party?

Democrats in the ’90s took hold of leading on building a criminal justice system that was built on vengeance and retribution. And while some people understand that we now need to reform the system and that the system goes too far, they are still carrying that mentality of retribution and vengeance. I believe that the concept and idea of democracy has always been a radical idea, even when we as a country only extended the vote to white, land-owning men when our nation was formed. It was still a radical concept then that ordinary people could choose who represents them, and I think it’s a radical concept now. That’s why I think that if we believe in democracy, then we should never take away the right of people to vote.

What about the People’s Justice Guarantee’s proposal to decriminalize sex work? Do you agree with that?

There are certain types of jobs like sex work that criminalizing it doesn’t necessarily lead to its end. It doesn’t lead to women or men who are working in sex work being safer. I think the People’s Justice Guarantee is really asking about the types of work that we have chosen to criminalize and what the outcomes are.

The Senate Democrats recently endorsed Hegar, whose platform is more moderate on many issues including criminal justice reform. What message do you think it sends when the party endorses your more moderate opponent?

I think what makes democracy and parties and candidates better has always been movements at the grassroots level. I think the Democratic Party has been as strong as it is on voting rights because Black people in our country organized and pushed them to do so. I think about where we need to be when it comes to criminal justice, it is going to be communities organizing that will push candidates and parties to do so. What’s unique about me is that I come from those communities that are pushing candidates to do the right thing.