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Where Obama and Christie Agree on Criminal Justice

In their recent proposals for reforming the system, the Democratic president and Republican governor who wants to be president have found common ground in three major areas. But does it even matter?

Last week, both President Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie proposed sweeping changes to the American criminal justice system. The speeches, just two days apart on opposite sides of the Delaware River, reflect growing concern over the economic and social costs of a system -- policing, courts and corrections -- that many see as discriminatory, overly punitive and ineffective.

They also reveal rare common ground where both men believe the nation can improve community relations with police, put fewer people behind bars and actually lower crime rates. Both want to expand drug treatment and employment assistance for nonviolent offenders; both want to eliminate the question on job applications asking about criminal history; and both favor a greater national emphasis on community policing.

That Obama and Christie largely agree on how to fix a national problem would be bigger news, if not for the fact that criminal justice is one area where bipartisanship is alive and well. In March, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican, and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat, introduced a bill that seeks to shorten federal sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. Last month, Wisconsin Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican, and Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott, a Democrat, introduced a similar bill that has attracted 34 additional co-sponsors and won an endorsement from House Speaker John Boehner.

Obama addressed the NAACP at a conference in Philadelphia a week ago. Two days later, Christie spoke at a presidential campaign event in Camden, N.J., which was once dubbed the murder capitol of the country, but recently received national attention for its efforts in community policing. Below is a rundown on where Obama and Christie overlapped in laying out a national agenda for fixing the criminal justice system.

Drug courts

Obama: “We should invest in alternatives to prison, like drug courts and treatment and probation programs, which ultimately can save taxpayers thousands of dollars per defendant each year.”

Christie: “Instead of settling for jail time every time, we need to give people the chance to get help. So that’s why in 2013, we brought in drug courts in New Jersey to provide mandatory treatment to first time, nonviolent drug offenders. [...] Right now, these kinds of programs are only available sporadically at the federal level, and access is basically totally ad hoc. I believe mandatory drug treatment programs should be made available in all 94 federal judicial districts – and good policy that begins with the states can be good policy at the national level.”

Background: Drug courts are an alternative form of sentencing for nonviolent offenders with substance abuse problems. Participants follow prescribed treatment and undergo regular drug testing. In 2012, Christie signed legislation expanding his state's voluntary drug court program and made it mandatory for some offenders. The Obama administration has advocated for the expanded use of drug courts because some research shows that it reduces criminal activity and drug use, which saves the government money because it doesn't rearrest and reincarcerate as many people. 

Ban the box

Obama: “Let’s follow the growing number of our states and cities and private companies who have decided to 'Ban the Box' on job applications, so that former prisoners who have done their time and are now trying to get straight with society have a decent shot in a job interview.”

Christie: “I also support getting rid of the felony box on employment forms. That one box usually rules people out of being considered for a job and having a chance at rebuilding their lives. So I’m in favor of getting rid of the box. If a hiring manager still wants to ask you about your record at a job interview, then you should still have to explain it, but at least you’ll have a chance to, and employers can also do a background check to get more context on your history. We can protect employers, but also give ex-offenders a fair chance.”

Background: As the nation’s incarceration rate grew in the past two decades, public officials have looked for ways to help ex-offenders find jobs and re-integrate into their communities. Research by Princeton sociologist Devah Pager suggests that employers are less likely to call back job applicants who indicate they have a criminal history. A growing number of state and local governments now have laws that prevent employers from asking applicants to check a box about criminal history. Proponents call the policy "ban the box." 

This year, New Jersey became one of 18 states to ban the box. More than 100 cities and counties also have some kind of ban-the-box law, but New Jersey is unusual in that it is one of only seven states to impose the ban on both public and private employers. In most cases, the laws affect public-sector hiring. Some also affect government contractors. Few go the additional step of preventing private employers from screening for ex-offenders at the start of the application process.

Community policing

Obama: “Two years ago, the [Camden, N.J.] police department was overhauled to implement a new model of community policing. They doubled the size of the force -- while keeping it unionized. They cut desk jobs in favor of getting more officers out into the streets. Not just to walk the beat, but to actually get to know the residents -- to set up basketball games, to volunteer in schools, to participate in reading programs, to get to know the small businesses in the area. [...] This city is on to something. You’ve made real progress in just two years. And that’s why I’m here today -- because I want to focus on the fact that other cities across America can make similar progress.”

Christie: “We need more police officers on the street -- police officers that are engaged with the community and can join forces with the community. The police need to be part of the community -- not apart from it. And we need to give them the resources to get the job done. [...] We got [Camden] officers focused on community outreach -- building relationships with community leaders and dialogue with residents. Our new force did meet-and-greet events at parks and churches and baseball games. They knocked on doors and talked to people one-on-one. And by building up that trust and visibility, we got people more likely to report crime, and to become voices for peace and calm themselves in their neighborhoods. And after what we saw in Ferguson, I’m convinced this is absolutely something we should be encouraging states to invest in.”

Background: In 2013, Camden disbanded its police department and formed a new regional department, rehiring its officers at lower salaries and with fewer benefits. The restructuring allowed Camden to add many more officers -- so many more, in fact, that it now has one of the highest ratios of full-time sworn officers to residents of any large city in the country. The number of homicides in Camden went down in 2013 and 2014, but its homicide rate remains nine times above the national average. Critics note that the recent decreases follow a record high number of homicides in 2012. For more on policing changes in Camden, read Mike Maciag's article about the city from last year.

Future Action?

It's unclear which, if any, of the ideas outlined by Obama and Christie will come to fruition in the near future. Obama has less than a year and a half left in office. His past attempts to expand federal grant funding for community oriented policing haven't gone anywhere: Congress actually cut it by 72 percent in the past four years.

So far, no one has introduced federal legislation this year to ban the box across the country. The National Employment Law Project, a nonprofit labor advocacy group, is pushing Obama to issue an executive order that would prevent federal contractors from asking about criminal history until they have made a conditional job offer -- except in specific cases, such as hiring for national security positions.

Next year's presidential election is likely to impact the viability of the proposals. Christie and Paul are both candidates who could continue pressing criminal justice reforms if either ascend to the White House. Former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton, the current frontrunner to win the Democratic nomination for president, has also become an outspoken critic of the criminal justice system, and pushed for many of the same reforms as Obama and Christie. 

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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