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Governor's Race 2017

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Governor’s Race 2017: Candidates Sharply Divided on Crime, Social Justice

Perhaps no other issues throw the candidates in such bold relief as policing, guns and gun violence, undocumented immigrants, and legalizing marijuana

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While crime might not pay, New Jersey’s two major gubernatorial candidates are hoping that their respective positions on crime and justice will pay off at the ballot box on Election Day. Although issues such as property taxes, infrastructure, and public pensions retain prime position in voters’ minds, an examination of the views of Democratic candidate Phil Murphy and Republican candidate Kim Guadagno on crime and justice reveal a wide policy divide.

The issue of policing draws perhaps the brightest line between the two candidates.

Upon first glance, Guadagno clearly holds the edge in experience when dealing with crime and justice issues. Currently serving as Gov. Chris Christie’s lieutenant governor, Guadagno is a former assistant U.S. attorney, assistant New Jersey attorney general, and the first female sheriff of Monmouth County. Murphy’s experience is based in business and diplomacy. A retired Goldman Sachs executive, Murphy went on to serve as U.S. ambassador to Germany under President Barack Obama.

Enforcement endorsements

Murphy, however, has overall won the law-enforcement endorsement battle. The New Jersey State Policemen's Benevolent Association (PBA), New Jersey State Troopers Fraternal Association, Port Authority Police Benevolent Association, and National Troopers Coalition — representing the National Association of Police Organizations, among others — have endorsed Murphy.

Murphy, a former NAACP board member, states on his website that he wants to “address structural racism in our criminal justice system” and “(New Jersey) can no longer accept policies that disproportionately target communities of color.”

“The overwhelming majority of police officers want to do the right thing,” Murphy said in remarks made on February 22 in Newark. “A return to community-policing principles and expanding the use of body cameras will both increase transparency and restore trust.”

Law enforcement background

Guadagno’s view on policing reflects her longtime law enforcement background.

“It’s not just black lives matter, not just police lives matter,” Guadagno said at a community-policing seminar at the College of Saint Elizabeth, according to an April 29, 2016 story published in the Daily Record. “All lives matter.”

Sarah Lageson, assistant professor at the Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice in Newark, looked at the issue of policing as one in which clarity is critical regarding public perception, including concerning the view of voters.

“Research has shown that if people feel that (law enforcement) procedures are transparent, fair, and that the law is equally applied to everyone, they are much more likely to believe in the system and comply with the law as a public safety benefit,” Lageson said. “I think that if police are held accountable to explain their actions, and do that in a transparent way, people tend to believe them. It's when things are behind closed doors that I think it makes things difficult.”

On a range of other policy issues concerning crime and justice, Murphy and Guadagno also often stand considerably apart, particularly on two hot-button topics: gun control and gun violence, and the deportation of undocumented immigrants.

The horror of the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas, the latest in a litany of horrific incidents in which firearms were used, has helped to push the issue of gun control and gun violence to the fore when focusing on crime and justice.

Signing Christie’s vetoes

On his website, Murphy states that he will sign all gun violence legislation that Christie vetoed. Murphy’s platform regarding gun control and gun violence includes his intentions to mandate gun safety training, promote smart gun technology, strengthen regulations on gun transfers, tax gun sales, and require timely reporting of mental illness episodes to the national background check database as a preventative measure.

Guadagno, conversely, has publicly stated that she will neither change any existing gun laws nor propose any new laws, if elected, noting that New Jersey already has some of the strictest gun laws in the country. She would, however, establish harsher penalties for gun-law violations. And, like Murphy, she would try to improve background checks for mental illness for potential gun purchasers.

Dealing with the undocumented

The nationwide issue of how to deal with undocumented immigrants has entered the debate in this year’s New Jersey gubernatorial election. When President Donald Trump announced in September that he plans to end the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, started under President Obama’s administration in 2012, it caused ripples in New Jersey, long a prime destination for immigrants. The end of DACA could deleteriously affect “Dreamers,” or young people who were taken to America illegally when children and who have grown up here.

Murphy has spoken out against the end of DACA, calling to keep Dreamers in New Jersey and opposing any potential efforts by state and local law enforcement to aid their deportation. Murphy also wants to provide financial aid for Dreamers, as well as provide drivers’ licenses and statewide ID’s for them. President Trump has threatened to pull federal funds from sanctuary cities and states, but Murphy stands firm behind his plan to make New Jersey a sanctuary state.

Guadagno opposes local municipalities declaring themselves sanctuary cities, as well as any statewide designation of sanctuary status. When Guadagno served as Monmouth County sheriff, she set up a federal partnership that allowed local authorities to start deportation proceedings against people believed to be in the country illegally, and who had committed felonies.

Opioids and marijuana

Two crime and justice issues have an impact on concerns even closer to home: opioid addiction and the legalization of marijuana.

Murphy and Guadagno both say that they recognize opioid addiction as an illness that requires state attention. Guadagno wants to try to divert addicts away from prison, while Murphy has called for Narcan, which counteracts the effects of opioids, to be more available statewide. Police in some municipalities already carry Narcan to administer to drug addicts that suffer an overdose. Both candidates, however, have been vague on how to pay for these plans.

Murphy backs legalizing recreational marijuana in order to allow law enforcement to use their resources to target more serious crime, according to his website. Murphy has also repeatedly pointed to the potential revenue to the state through taxing legal marijuana as a way to help ameliorate New Jersey’s fiscal woes.

Guadagno is against the legalization of recreational marijuana, pointing out that it would put New Jersey at odds with federal policy. However, she has also said that while she is against legalization, she would support easing access to medical marijuana for sick individuals. Guadagno has also stated that she would support decriminalizing possession of small quantities of marijuana so that drug offenders could avoid prison.

Mark J. Bonamo is the editor of TAPinto Newark. He lives in downtown Newark.

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