The prestige media focused on Gov. Chris Christie’s pledge to cut New Jersey’s unusually high state income tax, yet there has been very little coverage of his decision to shift the state’s approach to nonviolent offenders:
Here is one example: we can only improve our quality of life by keeping the most violent criminals off the streets. So, I ask you to approve my bail reform package, which would mirror the federal system. It would keep offenders with a history of violence who are a danger to our communities in jail until the time of their trial, instead of releasing them into society to prey on the public.
This may require a constitutional amendment but it is reform that is long overdue. Do you know that if a person is arrested with a long record of violence we cannot detain that person in jail pending trial? We must release that person, regardless of how dangerous they are to potential witnesses against them or innocent members of our society. Let us amend our bail laws to allow judges to consider the factor of dangerousness to our communities before we release a violent person back on to the street to maim or kill while they await trial. This, too, is just simple common sense.
At the same time, let us reclaim the lives of those drug offenders who have not committed a violent crime. By investing time and money in drug treatment – in an in-house, secure facility – rather than putting them in prison.
Experience has shown that treating non-violent drug offenders is two-thirds less expensive than housing them in prison. And more importantly – as long as they have not violently victimized society – everyone deserves a second chance, because no life is disposable.
I am not satisfied to have this as merely a pilot project; I am calling for a transformation of the way we deal with drug abuse and incarceration in every corner of New Jersey.
So today I ask this Legislature and the Chief Justice to join me in this commitment that no life is disposable.
I propose mandatory treatment for every non-violent offender with a drug abuse problem in New Jersey, not just a select few. It will send a clear message to those who have fallen victim to the disease of drug abuse – we want to help you, not throw you away. We will require you to get treatment. Your life has value. Every one of God’s creations can be redeemed. Everyone deserves a second chance. [Emphasis added]
I want all politicians, and in particular all conservatives, to pay careful attention to this: Christie highlighted a dangerous gap in the system that limits the discretion of judges to keep violent offenders behind bars. Yet he also made the case that nonviolent drug offenders should be given treatment rather than imprisoned because (1) it is cost-effective, (2) it is decent and humane, and (3) it recognizes that we can’t afford to waste human potential.
By leading with a “punitive” strategy (actually, a commonsense strategy — it’s about preserving discretion) and then pivoting to a measure that will help members of a marginalized population, Christie demonstrates his political sophistication, his strategic vision, his guts, and his decency. This is a big deal. Watch it for yourself below:
There’s another dimension to this: Christie evidently doesn’t believe that taking this stand will limit his political future. He is demonstrating that his brand of conservatism can form the foundation of a coalition that captures centrist voters even in a heavily urban, diverse northeastern state. This is part of why I understand and accept why Christie chose not to run for president this cycle: he had much more to do in New Jersey, and building a solid foundation there could be a great help if he does indeed pursue a national career.