Gov. Chris Christie, center, speaks in Camden, N.J., in 2014, flanked by Camden Mayor Dana Redd and Chief of Police Scott Thomson. Christie joined local officials to celebrate improvements in crime, education and economic development. (Photo: Mel Evans/AP)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will call on the justice system to “stop treating the victims of addiction as enemies in a war” in his first major criminal justice speech since he announced his bid for the presidency.
In an exclusive interview with Yahoo News ahead of the speech, Christie said he believes that far too many nonviolent offenders are in prison and that the war on drugs has been a failure.
“The war on drugs — from an incarceration perspective for those who are nonviolent, who are addicted — has been a failure,” Christie said. “And we need to go toward treatment for those folks and not incarceration.”
But the governor also maintains that marijuana and other drugs should remain illegal, and that he would not allow states to decriminalize pot if he is elected president. This sets him apart from many of his GOP rivals, including Sen. Rand Paul and Sen. Ted Cruz, who are in favor of letting states set their own policies. Sen. Marco Rubio, however, agrees with Christie and adamantly opposes legalization. Christie calls pot a “gateway drug.”
“Over the course of time we’ve made the decision to make marijuana illegal at the federal level,” Christie said. “Congress has to make a decision, you know, is it illegal or isn’t it. If it is illegal as it is today then we shouldn’t have other states running around and allowing them to permit recreational use of marijuana.”
President Obama has taken a hands-off approach to states that have legalized marijuana, such as Colorado, but Christie said he would reverse that unless Congress legalized marijuana for all 50 states.
“Let [the pro-legalization camp] make their arguments and see if they can get it to carry the day,” Christie said. “But at this point they haven’t, especially in the Congress, and it’s not something I would favor.”
The governor said he also opposes making reductions in mandatory minimum laws retroactive, which could free thousands of nonviolent federal prisoners who were put away under harsh drug laws that have since been relaxed.
“If Congress decides to revisit this, I don’t know necessarily that retroactivity is the right way to go, because what it does is force the judicial system to go and revisit every one of those cases — and we’re talking about thousands and thousands of cases,” Christie said.
Inmate Cynthia Harrison, second from left, offers support to inmate Eva Deliebana as she listens to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at the Hudson County Correctional Facility in Kearny, N.J., in 2013. (Photo: Mel Evans/AP)
The governor said he supports Obama’s use of his clemency power to free prisoners serving unfairly long sentences. Christie has pardoned and commuted the sentences of a few people in his own state, a politically risky move that many candidates — such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — have avoided entirely. “I think if you’re governor and you see something that’s an injustice, you have not only the right but an obligation to fix it,” Christie explained.
So how does the governor plan to reduce the prison population without easing any drug laws? Christie supports funneling low-level drug offenders into special drug treatment courts, which submit people to weekly drug tests and counseling but allow them to remain outside of prison as long as they complete their course.
On Thursday afternoon, Christie will speak in Camden, N.J., once the most dangerous city in America before a steep reduction in homicides over the past several years — an achievement for which Christie credits his decision to combine police forces there and increase the number of cops on the street. Christie will tout this record while calling for more rehabilitation programs in prisons and for a reduction in the number of nonviolent offenders incarcerated. His speech comes at a moment when many Republicans and Democrats are finding rare common ground on the issue of overincarceration. The U.S. imprisons a bigger share of its populace than almost any other nation, in part due to a crackdown on drugs that began in the 1970s and ‘80s.
“My concern about the prison situation is we have too many folks in there who simply don’t belong there and that we’re not rehabilitating folks who are there,” Christie said.
Christie wades into this issue during a week when Obama is highlighting his own plan to reform the criminal justice system. The president is touring a federal prison in Oklahoma Thursday, and gave a speech Tuesday that called for the Justice Department to investigate the use of solitary confinement.
“Do we think it makes sense to lock people up in tiny cells for 23 hours a day? It won’t make us safer and stronger,” Obama said.
Christie said he disagrees with Obama’s opposition to solitary confinement.
“I think that it’s a tool that needs to be available to prison officials,” Christie said. “I think it needs to be used sparingly, but I think it needs to be a tool available to them.”