On the campaign trail in Camden, Gov. Christie champions criminal justice reform

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 NJ Gov. Christie talks with Kathleen Dobbs, co-founder of the organization Parent to Parent. (Emily Cohen/for Newsworks)

NJ Gov. Christie talks with Kathleen Dobbs, co-founder of the organization Parent to Parent. (Emily Cohen/for Newsworks)

New Jersey Gov. and Republican presidential hopeful Chris Christie visited Camden Thursday to call for reforms to the criminal justice system and visit a treatment center for nonviolent drug offenders.

 

Christie first toured the Hope Hall facility in Camden, where he chatted with clients typing on computers and working out in the gym. He then traveled to the Roberto Clemente North Camden Community Center, where he spoke to more than 100 people inside the gym about criminal justice reform and drug addiction.

“Peace on our streets is more than just the absence of violence,” he said. “Justice isn’t something we can jail our way to.”

In the speech, Christie called for mandatory drug courts nationwide and proposed overhauling rules for granting bail.

He also held up improved crime rates in Camden and other parts of New Jersey as evidence that he could do the same across the country if elected president.

“Good policy that begins with the states can be good policy that can be applied to the national level as well,” he said, referring to New Jersey’s drug court program.

Christie also called for reforms to the bail system, such as giving judges more discretion to hold violent offenders and finding alternatives for nonviolent offenders who can’t afford bail to get out of prison.

Christie’s push for criminal justice reform appeals to progressive voters in New Jersey and elsewhere as well as conservatives who see the prison system as too costly and ineffective.

Still, it hasn’t done wonders for Christie’s popularity. A Monmouth University poll of Republican voters nationwide released this week shows Christie near the back of a crowded GOP field, with just 2 percent saying they’d vote for him.

At another event Thursday, Christie was met by protesters who criticized the governor on education, criminal justice, and pensions. Gary Frazier, president of Save Camden Public Schools, said changes in Camden like the switch to a county-run police force were thrust on city residents.

“These are some serious issues for us. They want to paint this across the nation that Camden’s going along with this plan. But Camden is not going along with this plan,” Frazier said. “Camden’s not had a chance to sit down at the table for this plan. They pushed this plan on us.”

Another activist, Newark resident Donna Jackson, said Christie has failed the state on a slew of issues.

“You think you’re stronger than the storm, Gov. Christie, but the people will be stronger than you,” she said.

“We will return you to where you belong: home sitting on the couch watching TV. Not destroying lives. Not destroying our state any further.”

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic front-runner in the presidential race, has also made criminal justice reform and drug addiction some of her top campaign issues.

This week while speaking to the NAACP national convention in Philadelphia, President Obama pushed for reforms such as cutting back mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders.

The county-run police force that replaced the old Camden City Police Department was not a creation of the Christie administration, but he did support it.  Those who champion it say the old department’s union contract was too onerous for the city to afford.  The new force has been able to put more officers on the street while using largely the same budget.  The police union maintains dissolving the old department was not necessary.

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