Opinion

Reihan Salam

Chris Christie and the ‘failed war on drugs’

By Reihan Salam
January 24, 2014

What would you do if you were a high-profile governor caught in the midst of a pseudo-scandal, with the national news media hanging on your every word? Here’s an idea: rather than focus exclusively on hurling accusations and counter-accusations, talk about something that actually matters. That is what New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie did this past week. After weeks fending off accusations that he had systematically abused his power to punish his political enemies, Christie spent a good chunk of his second inaugural address on criminal justice reform. Cynical observers might conclude that the governor was shrewdly changing the subject, and they’d be right. But it happens that he is changing the subject to the most vexing policy challenge facing the United States, and arguably the most sorely neglected.

New Jersey is one of America’s most affluent states. Yet many of its largest cities are scarred by both high crime and an incarceration boom that has made a stint in prison a disturbingly common rite of passage, particularly for young black men. Though many believe that mass incarceration is a cure for violence, as it incapacitates potential victimizers, problems arise when incarceration becomes so commonplace that it is destigmatized, and that it ruins the lifelong earning potential of young men caught up in its net, few of whom go into prison as irredeemable villains. As Mark Kleiman, a public policy professor at UCLA and a leading advocate of criminal justice reform, argues in When Brute Force Fails, the chief challenge facing many people who wind up in prison is a lack of impulse control. And this problem can be more effectively addressed through low-cost interventions — like programs for parolees that offer modest punishments for failing drug tests, like a weekend in the clink — than through high-cost interventions, like a years-long prison sentence. What we’re dealing with is an enormous waste of human potential that harms not just the young men who wind up in prison, but also the families, and the children, they leave behind.

And that is exactly how Christie described the “failed war on drugs” in his second inaugural address. After stating that “every one of God’s creations has value,” and that the loss of a job can strip people of their dignity and self-respect, he railed against the notion that “incarceration is the cure of every ill caused by drug abuse,” and he promised to make drug treatment programs more widely available. He described his ultimate goal as creating “a society that understands that every life has value and no life is disposable,” a neat way of connecting his pro-life convictions to the cause of treating drug offenders more humanely.

Though one assumes that Christie’s emphasis on criminal justice reform stems from a humanitarian impulse, it also happens to make good political sense. When Christie was first elected governor in 2009, he was very much the candidate of the Garden State’s conservative outer suburbs and rural areas, and no one expected him to take much of an interest in the problems plaguing cities like Camden and Newark, his hometown. Yet in his re-election bid, he campaigned aggressively for urban voters and minority voters, and he was rewarded with 51 percent of the Latino vote and 21 percent of the black vote, numbers that are more impressive when you consider that he won 32 percent and 9 percent of Latino and black voters respectively during his last go-around. (Indeed, the aggressiveness of his outreach in communities that have long been monolithically Democratic is part of what’s at issue in the recent wave of allegations concerning the Christie administration’s heavy-handedness.) Talking sensitively and intelligently about the damage mass incarceration does to poor urban neighborhoods was one of several ways Christie tried to build trust with Democratic voters.

Criminal justice reform isn’t just an issue that resonates with Democrats, however. As the political scientists David Dagan and Steven Teles observe in their article on “The Conservative War on Prisons,” there has been a sea-change in how the political right understands mass incarceration. Dagan and Teles attribute this development to the fact that conservatives have over time come to see mass incarceration as an example of big-government waste, and the prison guard lobby that presses for mandatory minimums and other harsh measures as just as self-interested as the teachers unions.

The question for Christie is whether or not he’s willing to go further to better the lives of New Jerseyans living in dangerous neighborhoods. The NYU sociologist Patrick Sharkey, author of Stuck in Place, has found that children living in neighborhoods that have experienced homicides suffer a serious and lasting blow to their cognitive outcomes. As governor, Christie could implement new strategies to help reduce crime levels, like shifting resources from punishing criminals to preventing crime in the first place, by, for example, pressing local police forces to become more efficient, and to expand when necessary.

Christie could also do more to reduce the intense economic segregation that keeps New Jersey’s poorest residents far beyond the reach of job opportunities. So far, Christie has been skeptical of measures designed to encourage greater density, and more affordable rental housing, in the state’s more affluent towns, but these measures could do a lot of good. The same goes for encouraging denser development in cities like Hoboken. If Hoboken attracts more high rises, poorer New Jerseyans are much less likely to be displaced from neighborhoods within easy commuting distance of good jobs by would-be gentrifiers. (Ironically, Christie’s lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, is accused of being a bit too overzealous in encouraging Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer to embrace density.)

By calling out the “failed war on drugs,” Christie has made a good start in making his second term mean something. What he needs to do know is wage a larger war on the destruction of human potential.

PHOTO: Police officers stand guard near a house, where an armed man with multiple hostages remain barricaded in, in Trenton, New Jersey, May 11, 2013. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz 

Comments
9 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Ah, nice misdirect, but Jersey is by definition the most corrupt state, and imprisonment and injustice are key to mantaining that status. The leadership of the GOP was never confused that increased imprisonment was actually a government growth program. Indeed, the GOP is really the party of big government, they just have a constituency that only hears the speeches and never sees the result. Reagan was the first great increaser of government. Now, granted, they always increase the military, the CIA, homeland security and prisons, which suggest what they will do with us when they get the chance. They also divide families through intollerance, and they increase debt to destabilize the government, which are both strategies to bring about the facist state. Of course the democrats are just as gullible in that they have allowed the conservative facists in the form of Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama into their party without ever even recognizing it. No, we will have facism, and the drug war is a key element of that process, so Christie paying lip service to a better drug policy is either a fein on his part or will get him removed from contention by the money providers.

Americans are such stupid people, they can’t even see reality.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive
 

The DEA is ratcheting up the failed and doomed War on Drugs to include accessing every prescription your doctor writes for you. The DEA is looking over the shoulder of your doctor and assuming the role of deciding whether your Rx is medically necessary or not The DEA has become a rogue and out of control police state agency that now dictates to the masses what medicine they can take. The DEA has become the evil enforcer of a failed policy that harms society far more than any benefit they provide. They are the evil alter-ego of the drug cartels. The DEA uses illegal means to incarcerate those it thinks deserve to be punished.

Posted by libertadormg | Report as abusive
 

I would still like the chance to vote for Mr. Christie.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive
 

I remember reading some analysis that in 2004 Bush won the presidency due to the close result in Florida being decided by the large number of non Bush voters disenfranchised by convictions for smoking or selling pot.
So the legions were marched off for nigh endless war and waste in the deserts of the Middle East, and the empire crumbled.
Far out.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive
 

Well, that’s rich, coming from the man who championed the for-profit prison system in New Jersey and other states like Texas. The prison company “Community Education Centers” former Sr. Vice President Bill Palatucci has been a member of Christie’s inner circle for a while now. Christie seemed to like him so much that he went on to serve as chairman of Christie’s 2013 reelection campaign. You can’t make stuff like this up.

So now Christie, with his back against the wall, decides to start talking about prison reform and how lower-cost alternatives to prison may be beneficial to society? This same man who paid millions into and received donation money from the for-profit prisons in NJ? A prison system which extracts profits from a business model which places emphasis in getting more people in jail in order to receive more money from the government? While I was merely disappointed by the “Bridgegate” scandal, now I can’t help but feel disgust for Christie.

Seriously, look this stuff up. It’s incredible.

Posted by Kino | Report as abusive
 

Mexico’s War on America using Mexican drugs seems to be a success for Latinos!

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive
 

War on drugs takes the USA dollars to Afghanistan and Columbia plus 2 million prisoners of non-violent crimes in the USA. There are many other bad decisions including 154 failed housing programs and the Frank Dodd act of 2012. Lets keep the Marines and the FBI and send everyone else home.

Posted by nodeficit | Report as abusive
 

You could have legitimized the title with the more accurate, “Governor Christie calls out the failed war on drugs.” Your spin, Chris Christie and the ‘failed war on drugs’ insinuates Christie failed.

The point: I never expect CNN style spinning from Reuters and will call you out every time. You’re reporting is typically nonpareil. Please don’t lower yourself to “Network” style news, we need you.

Posted by SalesDuJour | Report as abusive
 

Very good point @SalesDuJour. It seems Reuters played to the mainstream in hopes of them picking up the $tory.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive
 

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