Gov. Chris Christie took aim at Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, (D-15), Wednesday over a bill the assemblywoman sponsored two years ago that allowed for the early prison release of certain convicted criminals.
On March 5, Rondell Jones allegedly murdered Newark resident Eric Thomas, 21, in Jersey City, just six weeks after Jones was released under the program. Jones was paroled from Garden State Youth Correctional Facility on Jan. 24, just a year after his conviction on Jan. 22 for the unlawful possession of a handgun and conspiracy for drug dealing, according to the state Department of Corrections website.
Christie put the blame for Thomas’ death squarely at the feet of Watson Coleman, saying Thomas’ death was on her conscience.
Christie said the law, which went into effect in May 2010, was signed by Gov. Jon Corzine with a signing statement that would have removed the early release portion of the bill. But according to Christie, Watson Coleman reneged on the deal with Corzine and a similar one cut with the Christie administration when the new governor took office.
“Assemblywoman Watson Coleman reneged on the program,” he said. “She didn’t do what she said she would do and now Eric Thomas is dead.”
Reached after the press conference, Watson Coleman said Christie’s attack was uncalled for.
“I don’t know the situation as it involved this particular individual,” she said. “The issue of the early release bill that the governor shares again is as inaccurate today as it was then, as evidenced by the Office of Legislative Service evaluation of the (bill).”
Watson Coleman said pinning Jones’ actions on her was simply a deflection.
“I don’t consider the governor responsible for all the shootings that occurred in Newark and other cities because he has abandoned municipalities and forced them to lay off so many police officers,” she said.
Of the deal Christie said she agreed to with Corzine, Watson Coleman said she upheld her end. The concern at the time, she said, was that the early release program would include violent offenders incarcerated under mandatory sentencing laws. Watson Coleman said the bill was never intended to include violent offenders and an OLS review confirmed that they were not.
As for why Christie decided to take his shot at her today, almost two weeks after the murder, Watson Coleman said he was trying to draw attention away from the poor performance of his Schools Development Authority chief in front of the Assembly Education Committee Tuesday.
Watson Coleman had demanded that SDA Chief Marc Larkins give to the committee a written narrative explaining how each of the 10 schools chosen for construction was chosen, when according to the assemblywoman, other more deserving projects did not make the list.
This is not the first time Christie has railed against the early release program.
In June, Chief Counsel Jeff Chiesa sent a letter to Watson Coleman expressing the administration’s “profound disappointment” at her refusal to remove the early release portion of the bill. In the letter, Chiesa told the assemblywoman she had needlessly jeopardized the safety of New Jersey residents.
“Your conduct is nothing short of irresponsible,” Chiesa said. “The safety of our fellow citizens has been greatly endangered due to your failure to fix the problems with your legislation and to honor your agreements with not one but two sitting governors.”
“You sponsored this legislation. You supported this legislation. You broke your promises to fix this legislation. Ultimately you will be held responsible for the unfortunate and completely preventable consequences of this legislation,” Chiesa said.
Christie said he plans to rectify the situation and has written legislation that would remove the early release program from the bill. State Sen. Diane Allen, who originally sponsored the “No Early Release Act,” announced she would sponsor the bill in the senate to “close the loophole.”
“I wrote the ‘No Early Release Act’ fifteen years ago after someone got out of prison early and murdered a woman in my district and raped her young child,” Allen said. “Those convicted of serious crimes must pay their full debt to society. The absolutely reckless legislation signed by former Governor Corzine has now claimed its first victim. Eric Thomas was savagely shot in the back by a criminal who should never have been out of jail. I proudly stand with Governor Christie in supporting an end to this exceedingly irresponsible policy, and look forward to signing on as a prime sponsor of legislation righting this wrong.”
To date, 222 inmates have been released under the provision provided in Watson Coleman’s bill and another 563 are due to be let go by June 30. Christie lamented Thomas’ death and said he hopes there aren’t more.
“How many more murders are we going to permit under this rotten idea that was called rotten by this administration, and by the way, by the last one,” Christie said.