Julián Castro’s new criminal justice plan is long on inspiration, short on specifics
Julián Castro’s new criminal justice plan starts off promising. The title itself, “The First Chance Plan,” is promising. “Traditionally, the conversation around criminal justice has centered on a second chance after incarceration, and that’s important and addressed in this plan, but we also need to ensure that every person has an effective first chance to succeed,” Castro, a Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. Housing Secretary, writes. “No matter your background or where you live, you should have a real shot at a better future.”
This writer, too, has been critical of the language of “second chances” that is thrown around so often among reformers. The implication is that the system is graciously and patiently bestowing a second chance on a person who has squandered a first chance but, through unearned luck, will receive another. My experience as a public defender tells me this could not be further from the truth. Most of my clients got nothing that remotely resembles a decent chance at success, and I often wondered, if I were in their shoes, at what stage would I have given up on playing the unwinnable game set up by society and started to break laws? Apparently, Castro’s experience growing up on the West Side of San Antonio gave him the same impression. It was, he writes, “a working-class Latino community where most folks do not get a first chance. If you mess up or miss an opportunity, you’re more likely to end up in prison than walk across the graduation stage. Where I’m from, only a few folks complete college and too many enter the criminal justice system.” This is not because they are inherently worse than wealthy people; it’s because they were never given a shot.
Castro combines the idea of a First Chance Plan with a similarly wise holistic approach. “Throughout this campaign, I have connected the dots between different issues, recognizing that people do not live single issue lives, but rather confront multiple challenges that all intersect,” he writes. “Criminal justice reform is a moral imperative, but it’s insufficient if we do not also address public education, affordable housing, health care, climate change, immigration reform, gun safety, and if we do not lift up entire communities that have been left behind.” He connects criminal justice reform to his police reform plan, his education plan, his housing plan, environmental plan, his foster system reform plan, immigration plan, healthcare, and economic plan for working families, and his gun control plan.
I cannot evaluate each of these plans here, but it is worth noting that Castro first gained prominence in the presidential race for proposing an end to the federal law (Section 1325) that criminalizes crossing the border. This was the law that allowed for family separations. Castro also expounds on his comment at the debate this month that “police violence is also gun violence,” which is a key contribution to the discussion. But more important is Castro’s recognition that criminal justice reform is not simply a matter of making a few isolated changes––lowering sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, for example––but rather changing the way less privileged people are treated by society.
Apart from these insights, the plan falls apart. Castro espouses good ideas, such as “ending racial profiling” and treating drug use as a public health issue, but does little to explain how he would accomplish these things.
One section of the plan is called “A Restorative Justice System,” and although Castro lists a number of excellent goals, there is no mention of a single restorative practice. He mentions raising the age of criminal responsibility, tackling the criminalization of youth, and keeping all juvenile records confidential. These would be welcome changes, but they have little to do with restorative practices, which generally involve the person who inflicted harm taking responsibility and making victims whole through a nonadversarial process. It is also completely unclear how he, as president, could accomplish any of those goals in state systems. Castro also proposes eliminating cash bail, reforming the plea bargaining process to make it more transparent, and making prison conditions more humane. All of these are wonderful goals, but Castro again offers no concrete ways of getting us there, at least on the state level.
This is a problem throughout his plan, though there are a few exceptions, such as Castro’s proposals for increased federal funding for public defenders, Pell grants for incarcerated people for higher education, and, most significantly, his idea of eliminating one of the most pernicious laws affecting prisoners: the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). The 1995 law, as Castro writes, “significantly restricted prisoners’ ability to file lawsuits based on the conditions of their confinement. It notably imposed financial costs for prisoners and created barriers to address mental health injuries.” So although it is, at best, extremely unclear how any president could, as Castro promises, “ensure that every incarcerated individual has reasonable access, visitation rights, and contact with their family and loved ones,” repealing the PLRA is a reasonable and much-needed goal.
Some of Castro’s proposals seem either standard or not particularly radical. Ending solitary confinement “as punishment,” as he proposes, would still allow for government-sanctioned torture in the name of “security” or even the clinical needs of the incarcerated person, such as when people on suicide watch are placed alone in a cell in the bizarre belief that this torture will have some therapeutic effect. Offering clemency only for “non-violent offenders,” too, does not seem particularly progressive.
If other candidates could adopt Castro’s “first chance” and holistic framework, as many joined him in calling to repeal criminalization of crossing the border, it would be a win for his campaign. Calling this document a plan, however, is a bit of a stretch.