America’s most dangerous city has been a major focus of Gov. Chris Christie’s time in office. He has returned to Camden time and again, more than anywhere else other than the Statehouse in Trenton, highlighting tax breaks for new businesses, the state takeover of the school system and the dismantling of the city police department.
And while the city continues to be beset by poverty and crime, there are signs of progress: with just 13 homicides so far this year, Camden is on pace to have the fewest murders on record since 2001.
Christie’s efforts in Camden began controversially. His state budget cuts led to layoffs of nearly half of the police department, and homicides reached record highs — 67 in 2012. Other cities around the state faced with similar Christie cuts also laid off cops and experienced similar spikes in crime.
Christie then injected state funds to help Camden County dismantle the local city police department and create a new Camden County Police Department without some of the collectively bargained work rules that Christie thought were too onerous. The new department stresses community policing, in which officers engage more with residents by walking beats and handing out ice cream to kids. The police response time has shortened considerably.
Now as a Republican presidential candidate, Christie believes the new Camden County Police Department is a model for the country, and he used a community center there Thursday to stage a 40-minute policy speech on criminal justice reform.
“If we can make this work in Camden, I believe we can make this work anywhere in the United States of America,” Christie said.
Christie criticized the “war on drugs,” saying “federal drug policy has become a decades-long disaster” and told a story he often recounts about a friend of his who recently died after struggling with substance abuse. Such people need help, not prison, he said. “We’ve got to show more common sense in the type of crimes we focus on.”
Indeed, when President Obama visited Camden last month to highlight public safety successes, the Democrat made similar arguments.
But Christie and Obama disagree in at least one area. Christie on Thursday dismissed blaming violence on guns as an attempt at a “quick fix.”
Christie has drawn criticism for a continued shortage of drug treatment beds in New Jersey and promises to crack down on states that legalized marijuana. And it is unclear if his reforms in Camden — like dismantling a police department — are really replicable on the national level. Yet the policy proposals he delved into Thursday were some of the most substantive of any candidate so far on criminal justice issues:
- More community policing, especially in light of the unrest in communities like Ferguson.
- The establishment of drug courts, which send nonviolent offenders to treatment instead of prison.
- Connecting ex-offenders with services for drug treatment, housing and employment.
- Removing questions about prior criminal records from job applications.
- Changing the rules on bail so impoverished nonviolent criminals do not get stuck in prison and more serious criminals stay behind bars.