Not surprisingly, the proposal for an income tax rate cut and the forceful reiteration of the need for a dramatic and fundamental change in the state’s public education system attracted most of the attention, but the more compelling part of Gov. Chris Christie’s State of the State address last week was his call for denying bail to violent repeat offenders and keeping them jailed until trial.
Compelling because it was a response to a plea from a woman who lives in Newark and who, along with her neighbors, asked the Governor for help in confronting violent street crime, including gunplay, in the city.
The woman, Cassandra Dock, sat in the gallery in the Assembly chamber, breaking into a wide smile as the Governor recounted his meeting with her and listening to her cry for help.
The usual government response would have been to empathize with her while pointing out that combatting crime is a uniquely local government responsibility, arrange a meeting for her with city government and law enforcement officials and wish her well.
Christie, though, sensed an opportunity to deliver a message of concern over rising crime rates in urban centers and as the woman rose from her seat in the gallery and received a standing ovation, the Governor soaked up the warm reaction as well.
He destroyed for that moment at least the perception that government is a cold, unresponsive, uncaring group of people interested only in undertaking those things which help them remain in power or to satisfy the demands of outside special interest pressure groups.
His response was that one person can, indeed, make a difference; that it is possible to take your fight to City Hall and come away a winner. Government is capable of responding, Christie said in effect, and by acting decisively can restore faith in the system.
While conceding it may require an amendment to the Constitution to revise a defendant’s right to bail and subsequent release from custody, the Governor seized the opportunity to rage against a system which returns violent repeat offenders to the streets where they can commit additional crimes or intimidate witnesses against them.
By doing so, he placed himself solidly beside those like the woman from Newark who experience firsthand the frustrations of seeing a violent criminal placed under arrest only to discover, to their shock, the same person roaming the neighborhood within days.
By coupling his bail reform recommendation with an exceptionally strong and persuasive pitch for mandatory treatment and rehabilitation, rather than imprisonment, for non-violent drug offenders, Christie succeeded in occupying the best of both worlds --- a hard liner on urban street crime and a compassionate and caring individual unwilling to discard individuals who can and should be helped toward a productive life.