When Julián Castro began telling me about the kind of person he is working to help, both with his campaign and with his new sweeping social-justice proposal, he started to talk about Freddie Gray. “He was the victim of police abuse,” Castro said over the phone about the 2015 homicide of the 25-year-old Baltimore man in police custody, sparking an uprising in the city that turned violent. “But I remember that he was also the victim of lead poisoning.”
We hear less about Gray’s history with lead than that CVS that was looted and burned in Baltimore, yet property means nothing compared to what that toxin is doing to the blood and brains of young, poor kids in America. Ultimately, that is a housing issue, directly in the bailiwick for the Obama administration’s former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. But the man-made environmental danger that afflicted Gray and continues to affect thousands more like him is just one of the issues the underdog Democratic candidate addresses in a sweeping new social-justice proposal he released Wednesday, primarily aimed at revolutionizing criminal jurisprudence in the United States. The plan includes prevention of incarceration, ease of transition for former offenders, and bolstering everything from voting rights to environmental standards.
The bold proposal comes at a fraught moment during the Castro campaign. The candidate, who polled in the low single digits and struggled to qualify for the last primary debate on October 15th, announced in an email Monday that “if I can’t raise $800,000 in the next 10 days — I will have no choice but to end my race for president.”
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Castro spoke exclusively with Rolling Stone both about the struggles his campaign faces and his “First Chance Plan,” so named as to circumvent the lazy lexicon we Americans use to discuss incarceration and those who endure it.
“I believe that so many people never get a first chance in life, much less a second chance,” Castro told me in a phone interview. “And this entire policy is centered around giving people a first chance to reach their full potential. That especially applies to what we do to make sure they never end up in the criminal justice system in the first place, but also, once they’re incarcerated, to give them the tools to reach their full potential and become the people that they want to be.”
Castro’s plan appears to build from that principle: How can we be so worried about providing “second chances” when certain people wake up feeling that they have no chance to succeed in America — just because of how black, or brown, or foreign, or poor they are? The plan both not only recognizes that nonwhite people have been disproportionately punished, but that this has happened not merely because they have been unfairly charged or targeted. An American society has been designed to push certain people towards particular outcomes. Some are able to escape the vacuuming vortex of a poor education, homes with lead paint, and other institutional factors that determine one’s future before people are old enough to make choices for themselves. But too many are not.
Castro’s plan wants to revolutionize this not-so-great society by preventing people from going to prison, revamping criminal jurisprudence with new philosophies, and finding ways to ease re-entry for the formerly incarcerated. Many of his proposals are consistent with other Democratic plans — legalizing marijuana and ending cash bail, thankfully, have become pretty much boilerplate for anyone hoping to make it out of the primary.
But one element that particularly excited Castro was, ironically, his proposal for “Second Chance Centers”: a one-stop shop for information for the formerly incarcerated where they can learn all they need to know about how to re-engage in society. An evolution of his “Café College” community-center model from his five-year stint as San Antonio’s mayor, Castro remarked to that often times, former offenders “don’t have any familial support, they’re broke, and it makes it hard for them to get a job, or even job training, and certainly housing. We need to empower them immediately to get on the right path, and I don’t want them to have to wonder where they can go to get that. I want that to be in one place in communities across this country.”
Speaking of housing, the former HUD secretary and I spoke earlier earlier this year — once during the South by Southwest festival in Austin and later by phone in August — about what his successor was doing to his former department. “They’re basically ripping it up and throwing it in the trash,” Castro said of the progress he felt that was made towards fair housing under his and Obama’s leadership, later adding, “Ben Carson is simultaneously implementing Trump’s agenda of cruelty toward undocumented immigrants and tearing down the progress that the country made during the Civil Rights Era.” When we spoke about his new plan, Castro added fresh condemnation of Carson’s recent transphobic remark about “big, hairy men” attempting to infiltrate women’s homeless shelters.
However, Castro’s plan attempts to remedy some of what both the Trump and Obama administrations left undone, promising $50 billion to lead-afflicted communities to ensure that another Flint-like episode never happens again. It also promises to “decriminalize homelessness,” which he told me is a matter of considering housing to be a human right. It’s also about specifics, such as building three million more housing units over the next 10 years to “end family and youth homelessness by the end of the first term, and then end homelessness in our country, get it to effective zero, by the end of 2028. That is a very ambitious goal, but I believe that we should set ambitious goals when it comes to alleviating misery in our country and to making sure that people have a decent place to live.”
I did have one issue with the proposal, and that is that it became the latest to improperly define the term “restorative justice,” which is in actuality an approach that centers not on imprisonment and punishment but on collective action between victims, offenders, and community members to find reconciliation.
Following up on fellow candidate Pete Buttigieg’s mention of the term in his “Douglass Plan” in reference to reparations, Castro’s First Choice Plan demands a “Restorative Justice System,” a complete reversal of the misguided, biased apparatus that the crime bill Joe Biden wrote in 1994 helped create. However, as admirable as the proposals are — including adopting the idea a presidential advisory board of current and formerly incarcerated people to advise on improving prison conditions — there is no mention of the techniques that restorative justice employs, such the Chicago court that allows offenders to seek meetings with the harmed parties as part of their legal absolution.
This error all seems odd, given that Castro himself understood the concept of restorative justice perfectly well when I asked him whether Americans would be willing to embrace such a concept on a mass scale. “I’m confident that more Americans are open to a restorative justice approach now than ever before, or at least since the late 1960s,” Castro said. “And also the idea of restorative justice is that you’re not only helping the person who’s caught up in the criminal justice system become whole, but of course also folks who are affected by crime. And the system itself improves so that it’s not only punitive or not only thought of as a deterrent, but it’s rehabilitative.”
However, this is a dent in a largely solid set of ideas, a greater whole constructed largely from an assemblage of prior Castro proposals. This is a strength, showing that the former HUD Secretary is making an organic progression from his original policing reform, in particular.
“If we want to keep people out of the criminal justice system, we absolutely need to improve and reform policing in this country that too often times over targets communities of color and low-income communities,” Castro said. “That’s where the police reform plan comes in. I want to ban things like stop-and-frisk and racial profiling and set a national use of force standard that will help make sure that people are policed fairly and they don’t end up injured or dead simply for the color of their skin.”
I’m still in disbelief that we had a black president, and here we have candidates for president now saying things that even Barack Obama probably couldn’t have gotten away with in his political moment. However, some presidential standards never change, and the current realities are now infringing upon Castro’s admirable ambition. However impressive his ideas may be, it just seems that he hasn’t been carried far enough to impress enough voters. The Castro campaign may very well be on its last legs.
“I’ve gotten onto the debate stages, have met the donor threshold that the DNC put in place, but the crossroads that we’re at now is that being viable beyond November is going to take the resources to fight to get on that debate stage in November and to be able to organize going into Iowa,” Castro said. “We can’t do that if we don’t have those resources. There’s really not a viable path.”
If this is it for the former HUD Secretary, he went down swinging. His struggles to attract support have not been reflected in the forcefulness of his rhetoric.
Castro has been building towards this moment, even if it is his denouement. He remains the only candidate to date to put forth a comprehensive and specific plan that addresses policing reform. He the one who most consistently puts the names of police victims, including Atatiana Jefferson most recently at the last debate, in his mouth.
The improper usage of “restorative justice” aside, the First Chance plan doesn’t have the air of some desperate move to appeal to black, Indigenous, and Latinx strongholds of the Democratic electorate, hoping that they might keep his campaign afloat. More than a last-second gasp to appeal to voters, the plan speaks to Castro’s integrity. He is treating this primary as a contest of ideas, still seeking to improve an America that does not appear likely to choose him to lead them. What keeps him believing in this country that keeps rejecting him, and especially in this Trumpian time, people who look like him?
“That I’ve seen what’s possible. That I’ve lived a life of growing up in one of these neighborhoods that has been neglected, and just, often times, people are left behind and the odds are against you. But I’ve seen that success can happen, and I want to make sure that that’s there for everybody. What keeps me going is a fundamental belief in the people of this country — even though, of course, like everybody else, when I see the success of Trump, I have my cynical moments. But fundamentally, I believe in the people of this country, and I also see an urgent need to speak up for a lot of people that aren’t spoken for in our national political dialogue.”