CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) — Presidential candidate Chris Christie said Thursday that nonviolent drug offenders should have a better shot at rebuilding their lives and he wants to mend relations between communities and their police forces.
Outlining his vision of the criminal justice system, New Jersey's Republican governor cited Camden as a model for rebuilding trust between law enforcement and residents while also driving down violent crime.
"Peace on our streets is more than just the absence of violence," the former federal prosecutor said. "Justice isn't something we can jail our way to. Justice is something we have to build in our communities."
The situation in Camden, among the country's most crime-ridden cities, worsened after police layoffs in 2011 partly in response to state aid cuts under Christie. But crime rates have fallen sharply in the past two years after a Christie-backed deal replaced the city's police force with a larger county-run one focused on having officers get to know the residents better.
President Barack Obama recently visited Camden to highlight the changes, which Christie has cited as an example of the kind of bipartisan problem-solving he can bring to the White House.
Christie, who has advocated treating drug addiction as a disease, also called for mandatory drug courts across the country. Under a program he championed, nonviolent drug-addicted offenders in New Jersey can be sentenced to mandatory participation in drug treatment programs instead of jail time.
"Some irresponsible leaders love to find scapegoats or ride each wave of public outrage to support their narrow ideological goals," Christie said in his latest policy address. "It's always easier to blame the cops or guns or a lack of government spending. Well, I'm not going to do that."
The former U.S. attorney pressed for changes to the bail system to keep violent offenders off the streets and ensure that low-income, low-level offenders aren't stuck behind bars awaiting trial just because they can't put up bail.
He noted that he signed a law banning employment application forms from asking whether would-be workers had been convicted of felonies and said that was a question to be stricken in all states.
To show that addiction knows no boundaries, Christie told the story of a friend from law school who died of a drug overdose. He pledged to have the federal government treat addiction as a disease rather than a crime.
"Let's stop waging the war against the people who need our help the most," he said.
Colvin reported from Newark.