The Full Text of Governor Christie’s Criminal Justice Reform Speech

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Thank you Dan for that kind introduction and giving me the chance to see the kind of good work your organization is doing here in Camden. I just had a tour of Hope Hall, and I had a chance to have a real conversation with some of the people who are working to get their lives back. And just as it always is when I get to hear people’s stories, it was both rewarding and useful for me, and a great inspiration.

I also want to thank the Volunteers of America for welcoming us. Your program is deeply impressive – and as you’re going to hear me talk about today, I think what you do is something that fills a real need in our community.

I also want to acknowledge Bryan Morton. Bryan’s the founder of the North Camden Little League, and a lifelong resident of this neighborhood. When I visited last year I actually got to play baseball with Bryan, and he totally schooled me. So I’m back for a rematch. We’ll go right after this Bryan.

And I want to thank Mayor Redd and Chief Thompson for their hard work, cooperation and unwavering dedication to this community and the people of Camden.

Today, I want to talk about something that all of us care deeply about. How we can build a safer and more just society, not just here in Camden – but in every community across our country.

Now, keeping our streets safe is a challenge that’s been a big focus for my administration over the last five years – and I don’t need to remind you why we did this.

Everyone here has lived the reality of communities in need of justice and security.

You know what it means to see lives and families destroyed by crime.

You know what it means to see once proud neighborhoods devastated by drugs and gangs and violence.

And too many of you have known that frustration of hearing the same old solutions being offered over and over again, while nothing changes. Too often, justice becomes this empty word that only politicians throw around when they want to act tough. And that’s just insulting to everyone who actually has to live with the consequences of inaction.

Well taking action on this is something I really care about, and something I’ve not just talked about – we’ve made a difference together.  We’ve done it together during my seven years as New Jersey’s U.S. Attorney.  We’ve done it together during my nearly six years as Governor.

Talk about crime sounds good but accomplishes nothing. I am tired of all the talk about the fact that we must do something after a tragic murder like we saw in San Francisco. There is too much talk about crime and too little action. That is not the case in New Jersey. And when I am President that will no longer be the case in America.

Because today, as a nation, we’ve got to face the challenges of crime and justice all across America. And the signs are everywhere.

Today, our prisons contain more people than any other nation in the world – 25% of the world’s prisoners. I believe in American exceptionalism, but that’s not an achievement I think any of us want.

Every year more than 650,000 people leave those prisons. But according to federal estimates, within three years, two thirds of them are back behind bars. Our correctional system apparently isn’t correcting all that much.

And our police forces and law enforcement officers are overworked, and every day they’re risking their lives because of a broken criminal justice system.

We need a fresh approach as a country so that our kids can grow in safe and strong communities everywhere. We need to give people a chance to escape lives of crime, and to become responsible citizens, parents and leaders who can lift our country up.

Now a lot of politicians will give you easy solutions and quick fixes. Some irresponsible leaders love to find scapegoats or ride each wave of public outrage to support their narrow ideological goals. It’s always easier to blame the cops, or guns, or a lack of government spending.

Well I’m not going to do that. I care too much about this to give you quick fixes. And what we’ve seen on the streets of places like Ferguson is exactly what you get from a half century of quick fixes.

So today I’m going to talk about long-lasting solutions and real results – the kind that are working here in Camden. I’m going to talk about how together, we can achieve greater justice. And I’m going to focus on the real question I think we need to answer.

What makes a community stronger?

There’s a saying that peace is not simply the absence of war. Just because the tanks aren’t rolling doesn’t mean you have a just and sustainable relationship between two nations. You have to build something between them. You have to create an environment of respect, security and opportunity in which you don’t have to fight every time.

Well as someone who’s worked to make New Jersey safer, I’ll tell you it’s exactly the same here at home. Peace on our streets is more than just the absence of violence. Justice isn’t something we can jail our way to.

Justice is something we have to build in our communities.

We have to give communities a chance to escape from the spiral of poverty, drugs and crime.

We have to give law enforcement the right resources and strategies they need to deal with the roots of crime.

And we have to make the punishment fit the crime. We should stay tough on dealing with violent offenders, but for offenders who’ve paid their debt to society and are trying to reclaim their lives, we need to give them a real second chance. That’s exactly why programs like Volunteers of America are so valuable. We want people to become productive members of society and to go home and take care of their families. That’s not just good policy, it’s the right thing to do – and what a compassionate God commands we do. Every human life is precious, and we should never write off a life that can be redeemed.

So let’s talk about how we can do that and make every community one that’s fit for our kids to grow up in.

Community policing

The first step towards keeping our streets safe is through effective community policing.

We need more police officers on the street – police officers that are engaged with the community and can join forces with the community. The police need to be part of the community – not apart from it. And we need to give them the resources to get the job done.

Now, you know the situation we faced in Camden when I came into office five years ago.

For a long time, Camden was one of the most dangerous cities in America.

This city faced an epidemic of crime. The police force was crippled by a bloated union contract, low morale and an absentee rate reaching 30%. For some crimes, the force had basically given up responding.

Well leaving Camden in the lurch wasn’t an option. Not responding, as a state, wasn’t an option. Restoring hope to this city has been one of my top priorities as Governor, and that’s why we invested so much in improving education here, and why we’re going to continue working to make things better. But to get the situation on the streets under control, we had to take decisive action.

Working in coalition with county and community leaders, we came up with a plan to fundamentally restructure Camden’s police force.

We shut down the city police force and partnered with Camden County to regionalize it. Instead of a struggling force that only had about 240 officers, we put a new metro division on the streets with 400 officers – and because we got rid of expensive work rules, we did it for pretty much the same budget.

But restructuring the force was just the start. We also changed the culture – and rethought the entire strategy for engaging the community.

We got more cops walking the beat instead of sitting behind desks doing paperwork. Because of that, we cut the average police response time from more than 60 minutes to less than five.

We got officers focused on community outreach – building relationships with community leaders and dialogue with residents. Our new force did meet and greet events at parks and churches and baseball games. They knocked on doors and talked to people one-on-one. And by building up that trust and visibility, we got people more likely to report crime, and to become voices for peace and calm themselves in their neighborhoods.

And after what we saw in Ferguson, I’m convinced this is absolutely something we should be encouraging states to invest in. For communities dealing with a legacy of government neglect, a helping hand is always better than an armored fist. The best way to keep the peace is to build it.

And by bringing in cutting edge technology, we upped our game with the way officers respond to crimes. In Camden’s Real-Time Crime Center, we have civilian analysts working side by side with officers to stay alert 24/7. That team is monitoring more than 120 surveillance cameras across the city and 35 microphones that can instantly map the location of a gunshot. If shots are fired or there’s a 911 call, we have units already on the way.

So these are some of the big changes we made to make community policing work in Camden. And of course there’s a lot more to do. No one thinks our job is anywhere near done. But I’ll tell you this – through all of us working together, we’ve done something incredible.

We’ve started to reclaim the streets. We’ve started to put life back into communities.

Since we brought in these reforms, we’ve had a 22 percent drop in overall violent crime and a 51 percent reduction in homicides.

We’ve reduced incidents of rape by 30 percent.

We’ve cut robberies by 30 percent.

And we’ve cut aggravated assaults by 15 percent.

We have also seen improvement in Newark and Trenton. We deployed State Troopers there to deal with violent crime, and in the first six months of this year non-fatal shootings were down 45 percent in Trenton. Fatal shootings were down 58 percent. And in Newark, the number of murders was down 18 percent last year compared to the year before.

Kids are playing in the parks again. Businesses are opening. And if you need help, you can count on help arriving.

These are results that no one predicted and everyone said were impossible. We did this because of all the support and partnership from this community. And with continued effort, there’s no reason we can’t continue to make progress.

So here’s what I think. If we can make this work in Camden, we can make this work anywhere in America. We’ve learned something here in New Jersey about community policing – and I think we’ve got a pretty good model to share.

But this is just the start. More police on the streets gives us the capacity to go after crime. But choosing which priorities to focus on, and how we can prevent more crimes in the first place, is just as important to restoring troubled communities. And this is something I think we’ve learned something useful about in New Jersey too.

Focusing on the right challenges

To keep our streets safe we need to focus on keeping dangerous and violent offenders behind bars.

Now this is something I saw the importance of in the six years I served as US Attorney.

My office went after some of the most dangerous gangs and criminals in New Jersey. We went after the Perez Organization that was flooding our streets with heroin and crack cocaine. We took down Raymond Morales, a kingpin and murderer who was working to destroy this city for more than 10 years. And in Camden, by working with the ATF, DEA, FBI and US Marshals, we went after a bunch of dangerous fugitives and actually ended up arresting more than 300 individuals.

Every time we got one of these criminals off the streets, we saw what that could mean for the community. You don’t just save lives, you create the space in which people can reclaim their lives.

And lately we’ve seen what happens instead when you don’t have that focus.

On July 4, Kevin Sutherland got on to a subway train in Washington, D.C. Kevin was a bright young man with a promising future, a former Congressional intern. And now all his parents can do is mourn. Because Kevin was stabbed to death on that train – right in front of people – by a man who had been arrested just two days earlier for violent robbery.

The reason that killer was on the train? His charge got reduced to a misdemeanor – and he was released the day after being arrested.

Three days earlier, another young person lost their life in San Francisco. Kathryn Steinle, a medical technology executive, was walking along the shorefront with her father. She was shot and killed by a 45 year-old undocumented immigrant. The perp had seven prior felony convictions and was previously turned over to San Francisco police by U.S. Immigration. But because San Francisco designates itself as a ‘sanctuary city’, SFPD set him free to go and kill.

Sanctuary cities must stop protecting felons in the midst of law-abiding people. That must end and it will end in a Christie Administration.

These are just two tragic recent stories that have been repeated over and over again for too many families and communities all over America. For decades, liberal-leaning mayors and cities across America have pretended that the police are the enemy, and that lax criminal justice policies are compassionate.

Well here’s a question I want to ask all those mayors and defenders of a broken system.

How much compassion did liberal policies show for the families of Kevin Sutherland and Kathryn Steinle?

If sanctuary is supposed to protect the innocent, why have sanctuary cities become havens for crime?

We can do better than this, and we’ve got to do better than this. If someone gets arrested for violent and dangerous crime, and they’ve got a good reason to be held, then they shouldn’t be out on the streets with a slap on the wrist. They are sociopaths and should be behind bars. End of story.

And that’s exactly the policy we’ve pursued in New Jersey.

Do you know that when I became Governor, a judge could not deny bail to a person who was deemed a danger to our community? We had violent offenders being released before trial that were free to go and intimidate witnesses, threaten neighborhoods and commit more crimes. The federal government already allows a violent criminal who is a danger to the community to be held without bail. That seems totally reasonable, but New Jersey law didn’t allow that before.

So we fixed this. Republicans and Democrats came together to achieve bipartisan reform of our bail system. We gave judges more discretion to deny bail to dangerous individuals, and gave people who commit minor offenses access to non-monetary bail options – giving them a chance to reclaim their lives.

To keep violent offenders off the streets we repealed mandatory early release for inmates and restored the authority of parole boards. Previous legislation took away the discretion of parole boards to decide which inmates were suitable for release, and that just seemed ridiculous to me. Deciding whether someone is ready to rejoin the community of law-abiding citizens isn’t something we should rush or have an automatic presumption in favor of. This is something that needs to be earned and carefully studied so we don’t end up with the wrong people getting out. So I’m very glad we put a stop to that and restored the authority of the State Parole Board.

For too many communities across our country, the bail system is fundamentally broken. In a lot of cases, non-violent offenders are sitting in jails because they can’t afford bail. Prison basically becomes a debtor’s jail – folks can’t come up with $250 in cash to make bail, so they don’t get a shot at reclaiming their lives. And for every day they’re locked up, that’s a day away from their family, their job and being able to contribute to society.

Commonsense bail reforms are good for public safety, good for families and good for taxpayers. More and more states should implement them. As a former prosecutor, I can tell you this is something that we need and will serve communities fairly. This is about focusing on the right challenges for our criminal justice system, and reaching out with a true hand of compassion.

Ending the war on drugs

And that’s why, the other big reform has got to be around dealing with drugs.

If you’ve ever watched any disaster movie, there’s always one guy who never believes what the experts are saying until it’s too late. And there’s a reason it’s usually some clueless government bureaucrat.

In the war on drugs, our government is that guy with his fingers in his ears – and federal drug policy has become a decades-long disaster.

The war on drugs has become a war without end. We have millions of drug offenders in our prison system – nearly 50 percent of inmates in federal prison. And the collateral damage of this war has been communities and families all across America. It is a failure.

So we need a fundamentally different strategy.

We need to focus on fighting the real enemy – drug addiction. And addiction is something we should treat as the disease it really is.

As Governor, there are few things I’ve worked on harder, or that I believe as strongly as this. Drug addiction, just like cancer, is an illness.

Now, today there’s an inconsistency in the way society treats addiction. There’s no stigma to dealing with something like cancer, but with drugs we make people feel like personal and moral failures. That’s why so many addicts stay in the shadows. That’s why so many communities stay in the darkness.

But addiction can happen to anyone, from any station in life. Addiction isn’t something that only happens to young people or the poor or uneducated.

One of my best friends from law school was the best student among us. He married a great woman, had 3 beautiful daughters and a great career in a major law firm in New Jersey. He used to run many miles a week. Until one day he injured himself and ended up with a prescription for painkillers. And then he got addicted.

And after he got divorced, lost his driver’s license, lost his ability to make a living, they found him dead in a motel room at 52 years old. My friend had everything in the world and then he had nothing.

That man was one of the best people I’ve ever known, and I really miss him. And after what happened to him, all I can think is this – there but for the grace of God go I.

Everyone makes bad choices in their lives. Most of us have been lucky enough that our failings haven’t taken us down the road of addiction. But with a slight change in circumstances, that could have been me. That could have been any of us. And that’s why we need to stop treating addiction as some moral failing.

And if we choose to give people the tools and support to save their lives, we can beat addiction. If we bring people out of the shadows, most of them will want to live in the day. If we choose to stop treating the victims of addiction as enemies in a war, we can end this war. And all of our communities could win.

And that takes a completely new set of tactics.

Instead of settling for jail time every time, we need to give people the chance to get help. So that’s why in 2013 we brought in drug courts in New Jersey to provide mandatory treatment to first time, non-violent drug offenders. And in the last two years we also brought in a program to integrate employment services with treatment, like getting job training and help with finding jobs. We don’t just help people to get clean, we help them get back to work – something research tells us has a huge impact.

So here’s what we achieved.

Nationally, the usual re-arrest rate for drug offenders released from prison is 54 percent with a reconviction rate of 43 percent.

Compare that with drug court graduates who have a re-arrest rate of 16 percent and a reconviction rate of just eight percent.

And instead of forking out an average of about $39,000 to keep one inmate locked up, the cost of having someone go through drug court is around $11,000. Combined with the overall effectiveness of the program, we dramatically reduced the long-term cost to the state.

So these results are clear. Our drug court program works, and we’ve opened a new front in the fight against drugs – one that saves money, keeps people out of prison, and is just good policy generally.

There’s no reason we can’t replicate this nationally, and as President this is something I’ll absolutely make happen. Right now, these kinds of programs are only available sporadically at the federal level, and access is basically totally ad hoc. I believe mandatory drug treatment programs should be made available in all 94 federal judicial districts – and good policy that begins with the states can be good policy at the national level.

This is the right thing to do. And it’s not just about saving money or achieving good statistics. Because we’re talking about people.

We’re talking about people who could be my son or daughter – people who could be your kids, or your husbands and wives.

Drug court is about making every one of our citizens long-term productive members of society again – because we should want that for everyone.

Because every life is precious.

I happen to be pro-life, and I believe very strongly in the sanctity of life. But I believe that if you’re going to be pro-life, then you ought to care about life beyond the womb. An unborn child is life. But life is also that 16 year-old addict lying on the floor of the county lockup.

If we have a chance to save that life, we have an obligation to. Every life is a gift from God. No life is disposable. That’s the foundation of my entire political philosophy. And that’s the backbone of my strategy for dealing with drugs, here and in every state. Let’s end the stigma about the disease of addiction – and let’s stop waging a war against people who need our help the most.

Reclaiming lives

And if we find the compassion and the wisdom to do that, then we also need to take the next step.

We need to reform our criminal justice system so that we help people leaving prison to reclaim their lives.

Now, like I said, we’ve got to keep dangerous people off the streets, and that should be our first priority. But we also have to understand there’s a class of people who will benefit much more from us helping them to move on with their lives.

Too often, offenders are leaving prisons through revolving doors. They do their time, leave prison and re-offend – and then they’re right back where they started. Incarceration clearly isn’t helping rehabilitate them, and it’s destroying families and communities. More than half the people entering prison in our country live below the poverty line, and when they get out, they can’t get jobs. Overcriminalization and poverty go hand in hand – and this is something that disproportionately affects African-Americans who make up almost 40 percent of our prison population.

Crime should never pay. But every time we imprison someone, we have to consider the cost. If we’re going to pass on to the next generation a legacy of mass incarceration and overcriminalization, then they’re the ones who are going to pay the price – more broken communities, more wasted lives, and more government money every year thrown down the drain.

So here’s a better solution. Here’s how we allow ex-offenders a chance to reclaim their lives.

For first time offenders who have committed non-violent crimes and cases where the offender doesn’t pose a threat to anyone, we should work to find treatment and non-custodial sentencing options.

We’ve got to show more common sense in the crimes we choose to focus on, and more compassion in the way we prosecute them. And the intent of the accused should mean something.

But if we do put people behind bars, we’ve got to start thinking about our strategy for rehabilitation. How do we help people to return to their communities, keep a steady job and provide for their families – so they don’t wind up back in prison?

Helping ex-offenders to land on their feet is something that’s got to begin before they leave prison. If we’re going to incarcerate people, then we should make them do something productive and not just sit around watching TV all day. One solution is to require inmates to try and get their GED before release, so they have some minimum qualifications.

Another model is NJSTEP. This is a program we have in New Jersey with a group of public and private universities that provide access to college courses for qualified incarcerated students, and help support the transition to college after release. Hundreds of inmates are currently taking part in NJSTEP in six state correctional facilities, and it’s proven to be a really valuable program. We’re looking to expand this over the coming years, and we should encourage programs like this in other states.

Connecting people with support services from the moment they leave prison is also essential. We shouldn’t let folks just walk out the door and consider our job done. We need to give communities the tools to guide and support people in re-integrating. One example is this program funded by the State Parole Board that works with community-based agencies to help parolees find jobs. We know this can make a big difference in reducing recidivism.

For any of this stuff to work though, we’ve also got to stop punishing people after they’ve served their sentences. For non-violent offenders and young people, they deserve the chance to improve their skills, get a job and have a place to live. Right now, a lot of that stuff can be incredibly difficult. But all those things are essential for finding a stable place in society, and we shouldn’t put them out of reach for people we’ve put back into the world. And when we do that, not only do we redeem lives, but the taxpayers benefit as well.  New Jersey’s prison population is down 13% during my administration.  That’s tens of millions of dollars in savings that can be saved or sent back on to the streets to deploy more law enforcement.  If everyone doesn’t benefit, then what’s the point?

And that’s why I also support getting rid of the felony box on employment forms. That one box usually rules people out of being considered for a job and having a chance at rebuilding their lives. So I’m in favor of getting rid of the box. If a hiring manager still wants to ask you about your record at a job interview, then you should still have to explain it, but at least you’ll have a chance to, and employers can also do a background check to get more context on your history. We can protect employers, but also give ex-offenders a fair chance.

And in the end, that’s what this is all about. Giving people a second chance.

Crime is a challenge that we have to face, and we all want to stop. But justice comes when people face the consequences of their actions, and pay society back.

There can be no greater reward for society, no greater vindication of all our efforts, than the moment that someone who’s strayed from the path is able to return to it. We don’t want people to live out their days in the shadows. Every single life we can bring back home and turn into a productive member of society – a husband, a wife, a father or a mother – is a reward of God’s eternal grace and compassion. And that’s how we achieve justice together and make all our communities and our country greater.

Close

So that’s how I think about an agenda for criminal justice reform in our country today.

Over the last few years we’ve learned a lot in New Jersey about how to make our streets safer, and how to create a criminal justice system that’s more effective and more compassionate. We’ve achieved even more. And I think we have something valuable to share with communities across our nation.

We didn’t achieve greater justice in New Jersey just because of the right legislation or programs. Experts and strategies will only get you so far, even when they’re based on the best of ideas.

We did it because of the people of Camden. We did it because of heroic law enforcement officers across the county and across the state. We did it together as Republicans and Democrats, as people of many faiths and backgrounds.

And we did it because we believed. We believed that Camden could be greater than it was yesterday – and tomorrow will better than today. We believed in a stronger, safer New Jersey. And because we chose to believe in each other.

In 2016, we face an election and a politics defined by cynicism. There will be people who say America has reached its peak, and it’s up to us to manage the decline. There will be many voices that say that the lessons of one state don’t apply to the realities of others.

As President of the United States, let me remind you again what I am for and what I will do to reform our criminal justice system. I will fight for more police officers on the street that are taught to engage with the members of the communities they serve.  I will fight to keep violent offenders behind bars and out of our neighborhoods. I will fight for common sense bail reform that keeps violent criminals in jail and allows non-violent offenders to get out to start on their second chance. I will fight to give those who have paid their debt to society a real second chance through education and job training. I will fight to treat drug addiction for the disease it is and to give tools to those afflicted to become better mothers and fathers, better husbands and wives, better sons and daughters.

I’m going to go out there and take what we’ve learned here on the streets of Camden and all across our state, and I’m going to show people what we’ve achieved. And I’m not going to give you the quick solutions to the challenges we face – I’m going to talk about the real issues in detail, and come up with a plan for action. And I’m going to show the same faith in all of you that you’ve shown in me.

Thank you for coming today, and thank you for believing. God bless you and God bless the United States of America.

The Full Text of Governor Christie’s Criminal Justice Reform Speech