Now Chris Christie’s Pushing Prison Reform, Too

At a bipartisan event in Jersey City, the governor tried claim his share of Republican leadership on what the GOP hopes will be a defining conservative issue come 2016.

Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

Riding high on word that according to a Fox News poll he is leading the 2016 Republican field, embattled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie arrived in Jersey City Thursday to deliver a message to the GOP about prison reform: “You need to be pro-life after they get out of the womb.”

Christie, sitting opposite former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey, used the event to combine his pro-life views with his progressive stance on incarceration, which mirror those of prominent conservatives across the country. Prison reform is an issue that is gaining momentum on the right, and as Grover Norquist told The Daily Beast last week, “by the time we get to the caucuses, every single Republican running for president will be versed on this… [prison reform] will become a consensus issue within the center-right.”

Christie seems to be positioning himself to be a leader on prison reform. The issue has the benefit of—besides being attractive to both fiscal and social conservatives—being one that Republicans and Democrats tend to work together on, which adds credibility to the image of bipartisan pragmatist that Christie has been trying to craft in Trenton.

On Thursday, he said, “whether you’re conservative or liberal or moderate or whatever you call yourself, you don’t want violent people on the street. Nobody does.” Christie said. “But, we also have to understand that there is a class of people who will benefit much more from us reaching out a helping hand to them.”

The governor was asked to speak at the prison re-entry conference by Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, a Democrat who many believe will attempt to succeed Christie when he leaves office, and McGreevey, who was appointed late last year by Fulop as the director of a Jersey City jobs commission. The appointment is McGreevey’s first political position since resigning from the governorship nearly a decade ago after confessing that he is gay and had hired his unqualified lover as a homeland-security adviser.

In a statement to The Daily Beast, Fulop measuredly praised Christie, “It is a bipartisan issue in the truest sense. Everyone recognizes that the prison system is failing and the governor articulated it well.”

Added McGreevey: “The governor was direct and candid as to the need and efficacy of treatment rather than incarceration. Gov. Christie has long championed treatment and the need for treatment to be the preferable course over imprisonment.”

Drug-court programs have been used in New Jersey for more than a decade. In 2012, Christie expanded on the progress when he called for mandatory treatment for low-level, nonviolent offenders instead of jail time. Christie has said that his own history with the issue dates back to his days as a county freeholder (a local elected position—like a city council member—unique to New Jersey), where he saw rehabilitation made a difference at a local treatment facility.

Christie, a Catholic who at the beginning of his political career in 1993 was pro-choice, has said he reformed his stance on abortion when he first heard the heartbeat of his unborn daughter. On Thursday, he told the crowd, “I’m pro-life, and I believe strongly in the sanctity of life,” before recycling a line he successfully used at CPAC about being pro-life throughout life, not just during pregnancy.

That philosophy may not extend all the way to the issue of the death penalty, however. The death penalty was repealed in the Garden State in 2007 (nobody had been executed since 1963), two years before Christie assumed the governorship. In 2011, Republican State Senator Robert W. Singer introduced a bill to bring back capital punishment for certain capital crimes, including killing a police officer or children under 14. Gov. Christie reportedly said at the time that he would sign the bill if it made it to his desk.