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Analysis: Specter of Willie Horton Hangs Over Push for Speedy Vote on Bail Reform

Christie aspirations, state politics drive constitutional amendment to ballot this November despite unanswered questions about costs, legality

christie
Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Gov. Chris Christie speaks during a recent "town hall"-style gathering in Beach Haven.

Gov. Chris Christie was midway through his gut-wrenching story last week about a Hamilton Township man, out on bail for first-degree robbery who had pointed a gun at the head of an 8-month-old baby and threatened to put the infant in the oven.

Just then, a union protester at the back of the crowd in Belmar yelled out, “Willie Horton!”

McGhore Jean, the 25-year-old with a long criminal record whose menacing home invasion was thwarted by Trenton police three weeks ago, isn’t as infamous as Willie Horton. Horton, a convicted murderer whose 1986 rape of a woman after he escaped from a weekend furlough program, was featured in a campaign ad that torpedoed the presidential candidacy of then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.

But there is little question that the specter of Willie Horton is one of the main factors driving the politics of the proposed constitutional amendment to overhaul New Jersey’s bail system. The bill is being rushed onto the November ballot despite unanswered questions about its costs and its constitutionality.

From a policy standpoint, the constitutional amendment could just as easily go on the ballot in 2015 or 2016 because it would not take effect until 2017 anyway, as state Sen. Ron Rice and state Sen. Nia Gill (both D-Essex), pointed out during last week’s Senate debate. It’s the political calendar, they said, that dictates otherwise.

For Christie, the all-out push to get the state Assembly to pass the constitutional amendment changing the bail system today – the last day for the amendment to be placed on the November ballot – is all about adding a “tough on crime” issue to campaign on in the Republican presidential primaries, Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, and Democratic critics agreed.

Christie is being targeted increasingly by Republican conservatives who view him as just another Northeastern moderate. In fact, the conservative Judicial Advocacy Network greeted Christie’s arrival in New Hampshire TV, radio and online ads attacking the governor for allegedly failing to keep his promise “to change New Jersey’s liberal Supreme Court” by appointing conservative judges.

For Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who could find himself running for governor sooner than 2017 if Christie leaves the post early to run for the White House, the constitutional amendment for bail reform is that rare policy issue that appeals to conservatives and liberals alike – and it’s liberals who Sweeney needs to win over if he wants to win the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

For Assembly Democrats who have to put their 48-32 majority on the line in the November 15 elections, it’s about avoiding modern-day Willie Horton campaign ads by their Republican opponents charging that they were unwilling to pass a constitutional amendment to keep violent offenders with criminal records, like McGhore Jean, in jail without bail.

As Christie put it last Wednesday in a press conference aimed at pressuring Democratic Assembly leaders into putting the constitutional amendment on the November ballot, “I hope they will particularly think about that family here in Trenton safely in their home having someone out on bail invade their home, put a gun to their 8-month-old child, and threaten to put that child in the oven if all of their demands are not met.”

Christie attached two faces to the constitutional amendment to reform New Jersey’s bail system during the speech he made during the special session of the state Legislature that he called last Thursday to demand that the initiative be put on the ballot this year.

One was Jean, who was sitting in jail in Mercer County because he could not raise the $200,000 bail bond required after the Trenton home invasion he committed while out on bail on an April 2013 armed robbery charge.

The other, who was sitting in the front row next to Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno during Christie’s speech, was Iquan Small, a 21-year-old who spent four months in jail earlier this year because he could not afford to pay the bail on stolen property charges that were later dropped.

How Will It Play to GOP Outside NJ?

While Christie shook hands with Small in the Assembly Chamber, his efforts to keep offenders like Jean off the street are what he is most likely to emphasize in front of Republican audiences in Iowa and New Hampshire.

“Christie may talk in New Jersey about how important it is to keep poor people accused of nonviolent crimes who can’t afford bail out of jail, but nationally, this is a ‘tough on crime’ measure,” Murray said. “Christie gets a win out of this by showing he’s willing to use his gubernatorial power to the maximum extent to keep violent criminals locked up.”

“He’s never going to be the darling of the right wing, but this gives him an issue to make sure attacks on him as ‘soft on crime’ don’t stick,” Murray added.

Christie continues to be attacked on right-wing websites for his appointment of a Muslim judge and his praise for a Muslim imam’s cooperation with his U.S. Attorney’s Office after the 9/11 attacks – comments he stoutly defended at last Wednesday’s town hall meeting in Belmar.

Christie’s recent veto of legislation to lower the magazine limit on semiautomatic weapons from 15 cartridges to 10 – and his highly publicized refusal to meet with family members of Sandy Hill School shooting victims who supported the bill – won’t win him the support of those Republican voters to whom the Second Amendment is the most important issue.

But it could help reassure the majority of GOP voters who just want to see that Christie has some record of vetoing gun-control measures as governor.

Murray said Christie remains “a top-tier contender” for the presidency, even if he is “no longer the odds-on favorite, clear-the-field candidate of the Republican establishment that he was before Bridgegate.”

Christie’s free-fall in the aftermath of the Bridgegate scandal “stabilized for him nationally within six weeks – even though it took the rest of us (in New Jersey) a lot longer to figure that out,” he said.

Christie, who has had a high-profile year, campaigning nationwide and raising a record $60 million for GOP candidates nationally as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, has said he will make a final decision on a 2016 presidential run at the end of the year.

And with presidential campaigns starting earlier every cycle, approval of a constitutional amendment to keep violent offenders in jail without bail won’t do Christie as much good 15 months from now as it would three months from now.

Sweeney is also on an election clock – although it is one of Christie’s choosing, rather than his own. If Christie decides to resign early to run full-time for president next year, as some Democrats have suggested, Sweeney could be running for governor in November 2015. Christie also could resign during the summer of 2016 if he wins the GOP presidential nomination, pushing Sweeney into a November 2016 run.

In either case, Sweeney’s biggest political challenge is viewed as winning the support of “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” – the urban leaders, environmentalists and public employee unionists who tend to be more liberal than the South Jersey Democrats, along with the building-trades unions that make up the most committed core of Sweeney’s support.

The ability to keep violent prior offenders like Jean locked up without bail will appeal to Sweeney’s base, but the measure’s chief sponsor, Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden), a staunch Sweeney ally and the brother of South Jersey Democratic power broker George Norcross, has been placing equal emphasis on the liberal, humanitarian aspects of his proposal.

“On any day, 1,700 nonviolent offenders are sitting in jail because they can’t afford $2,500 bail,” Norcross noted, citing statistics released by Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner.

Keeping inmates in jail costs $30,000 a year, Norcross noted, and Christie asserted that the practice is “nothing less than a system of debtors’ prisons.”

Gill and Rice both sharply questioned the need to rush through a constitutional amendment that would not take effect until 2017. They noted that the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services has been unable to obtain estimates from the Christie administration on the full cost of the new pretrial bail screening program and the additional monitoring and drug treatment costs associated with releasing thousands of nonviolent offenders back to the community.

“If these programs are not properly funded, it makes the system worse, not better,” Gill contended, adding that the cost of implementation could run anywhere from $100 million to $600 million.

Rice said passing a constitutional amendment allowing offenders with violent records to be held without bail makes no sense without giving defendants the right to a speedy trial -- and the Norcross proposal only requires that defendants be tried within two years.

“This takes us back to the days of Bull Connor,” Rice said, adding that the Birmingham, Ala., police chief who was the symbol of police repression during the civil-rights movement “would love a constitutional amendment like that.”

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) and key Democratic Assembly leaders John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) and Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Mercer), a sponsor of the bail-reform legislation, all questioned the need to rush the constitutional amendment to the ballot following Christie’s speech Thursday.

“The Assembly is the people’s house,” said Prieto, who said that as a “consensus-builder,” he wanted to make sure that his caucus worked through some of the problem issues in the legislation, including the failure to assure a speedy trial. “We are part of the equation, and part of the solution,” he said in explaining the Assembly’s refusal to be rushed into a decision.

Prieto, however, later agreed to post the constitutional amendment for a vote today, when the Assembly also will return to vote on a constitutional amendment to fund open-space preservation.

“Too many Democrats in the Assembly caucus were worried about campaign ads next year if they didn’t go along with the bail reform,” one Democratic insider explained.

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