What would you do if you were a high-profile governor caught in the midst of a pseudo-scandal, with the national news media hanging on your every word? Here’s an idea: rather than focus exclusively on hurling accusations and counter-accusations, talk about something that actually matters. That is what New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie did this past week. After weeks fending off accusations that he had systematically abused his power to punish his political enemies, Christie spent a good chunk of his second inaugural address on criminal justice reform. Cynical observers might conclude that the governor was shrewdly changing the subject, and they’d be right. But it happens that he is changing the subject to the most vexing policy challenge facing the United States, and arguably the most sorely neglected.

New Jersey is one of America’s most affluent states. Yet many of its largest cities are scarred by both high crime and an incarceration boom that has made a stint in prison a disturbingly common rite of passage, particularly for young black men. Though many believe that mass incarceration is a cure for violence, as it incapacitates potential victimizers, problems arise when incarceration becomes so commonplace that it is destigmatized, and that it ruins the lifelong earning potential of young men caught up in its net, few of whom go into prison as irredeemable villains. As Mark Kleiman, a public policy professor at UCLA and a leading advocate of criminal justice reform, argues in When Brute Force Fails, the chief challenge facing many people who wind up in prison is a lack of impulse control. And this problem can be more effectively addressed through low-cost interventions — like programs for parolees that offer modest punishments for failing drug tests, like a weekend in the clink — than through high-cost interventions, like a years-long prison sentence. What we’re dealing with is an enormous waste of human potential that harms not just the young men who wind up in prison, but also the families, and the children, they leave behind.

And that is exactly how Christie described the “failed war on drugs” in his second inaugural address. After stating that “every one of God’s creations has value,” and that the loss of a job can strip people of their dignity and self-respect, he railed against the notion that “incarceration is the cure of every ill caused by drug abuse,” and he promised to make drug treatment programs more widely available. He described his ultimate goal as creating “a society that understands that every life has value and no life is disposable,” a neat way of connecting his pro-life convictions to the cause of treating drug offenders more humanely.

Though one assumes that Christie’s emphasis on criminal justice reform stems from a humanitarian impulse, it also happens to make good political sense. When Christie was first elected governor in 2009, he was very much the candidate of the Garden State’s conservative outer suburbs and rural areas, and no one expected him to take much of an interest in the problems plaguing cities like Camden and Newark, his hometown. Yet in his re-election bid, he campaigned aggressively for urban voters and minority voters, and he was rewarded with 51 percent of the Latino vote and 21 percent of the black vote, numbers that are more impressive when you consider that he won 32 percent and 9 percent of Latino and black voters respectively during his last go-around. (Indeed, the aggressiveness of his outreach in communities that have long been monolithically Democratic is part of what’s at issue in the recent wave of allegations concerning the Christie administration’s heavy-handedness.) Talking sensitively and intelligently about the damage mass incarceration does to poor urban neighborhoods was one of several ways Christie tried to build trust with Democratic voters.

Criminal justice reform isn’t just an issue that resonates with Democrats, however. As the political scientists David Dagan and Steven Teles observe in their article on “The Conservative War on Prisons,” there has been a sea-change in how the political right understands mass incarceration. Dagan and Teles attribute this development to the fact that conservatives have over time come to see mass incarceration as an example of big-government waste, and the prison guard lobby that presses for mandatory minimums and other harsh measures as just as self-interested as the teachers unions.

The question for Christie is whether or not he’s willing to go further to better the lives of New Jerseyans living in dangerous neighborhoods. The NYU sociologist Patrick Sharkey, author of Stuck in Place, has found that children living in neighborhoods that have experienced homicides suffer a serious and lasting blow to their cognitive outcomes. As governor, Christie could implement new strategies to help reduce crime levels, like shifting resources from punishing criminals to preventing crime in the first place, by, for example, pressing local police forces to become more efficient, and to expand when necessary.

Christie could also do more to reduce the intense economic segregation that keeps New Jersey’s poorest residents far beyond the reach of job opportunities. So far, Christie has been skeptical of measures designed to encourage greater density, and more affordable rental housing, in the state’s more affluent towns, but these measures could do a lot of good. The same goes for encouraging denser development in cities like Hoboken. If Hoboken attracts more high rises, poorer New Jerseyans are much less likely to be displaced from neighborhoods within easy commuting distance of good jobs by would-be gentrifiers. (Ironically, Christie’s lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, is accused of being a bit too overzealous in encouraging Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer to embrace density.)

By calling out the “failed war on drugs,” Christie has made a good start in making his second term mean something. What he needs to do now is wage a larger war on the destruction of human potential.

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