Chris Christie on sentencing reform

I went to Iowa intending to ask every candidate I could about sentencing reform. Unfortunately, Chris Christie was the only one of the ten GOP contenders I saw who took questions. Thus, he and Carly Fiorina, whom I approached after her speech at the State Fairgrounds, were the only candidates I was able to discuss the matter with.

Here is how it went down with Christie:

The question

I asked the governor for his view of the bipartisan Senate Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act that would lower some mandatory minimums for federal drug felons, end “three strikes and you are out” for federal drug felons, and allow felons who have served sentences longer than the new minimums for their crime to petition judges for release.

The answer

Christie responded that he has not read the Senate bill. Thus he could not comment on it.

He added, however, that he supports criminal justice reform and “did it in New Jersey.” He explained that we cannot “incarcerate our way out” of the drug problem America faces. If we are pro-life, then we should be trying to save the lives of young drug addicts, not throwing them in jail. First time drug offenders should be sent to rehab, not prison.

Christie emphasized, however, that there should be no leniency for violent offenders or for those who sell drugs. Later, he said no leniency for violent offenders or those who profit from selling them. Whether Christie equates selling with profiting or instead views those who sell merely to support their habit as non-profiteers was not clear to me.

My analysis

It was entirely fair for Christie not to comment on the bipartisan Senate bill, since he has not read it. I appreciated his willingness to discuss the broader issue with some specificity.

However, from my perspective, Christie’s response raises concerns. It’s well and good to say there will be no leniency for violent offenders. But this is the same mantra we hear from Dick Durbin, Mike Lee, and the rest of Team Leniency.

The problems with the gambit are (1) selling dangerous drugs should be viewed as inherently violent, (2) those who bring guns to drug deals should certainly be viewed as inherently violent, yet Team Leniency grants relief to this class of felons, and (3) many “non violent” drug felons actually engaged in violence but escaped this charge via a plea bargain.

Christie deals with the first problem by advocating no relief for dealers. As noted, however, he may have left some wiggle room when he spoke of “those who profit” from drug sales.

In New Jersey, as I understand it, Christie’s sentencing reform included removing mandatory minimums for drug offenses committed in close proximity to schools. As far as I can tell, this relief applies to dealers. I fail to see how it is “pro-life” to be lenient on those who sell life-destroying drugs to school children.

Whether Christie favors relief for those who bring guns to drug deals or who were sentenced to long terms for drug felonies but pleaded out of violence charges, I do not know. His focus seems to be on truly low level offenders who might benefit more from treatment than imprisonment.

Certainly, this is sympathetic cohort. Unfortunately, it is often invoked in the name of relief for serious offenders.

Does Christie play this game? I do not know. He comes across as a straighter shooter than that.

In any event, there are few truly low level offenders in the federal system and virtually none to whom mandatory minimums apply.

Final impression

It’s difficult to translate Christie’s answer to my question and his record in New Jersey into a position on the pending Senate legislation. However, I came away concerned that the New Jersey man would be receptive to working with Dick Durbin, Mike Lee, and other members of the leniency coalition to soften federal criminal drug violation sentences, notwithstanding the important role that the long sentences have played in reducing crime.