01/26/2012 11:15 am ET Updated Mar 27, 2012

NJ Gov. Christie's Fresh Approach to Drug Offenders

"No life is disposable." What an awesome and important message. Especially when it comes from one of the political right's rising stars as he described his plan for mandatory drug treatment in lieu of prison for first-time offenders.

Last week in his State of the State address, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie made the most eloquent and able case for ending our prison-first mentality I've ever heard. And after 20 years of working for sentencing reforms, I've heard a lot.

Governor Christie spoke of the need for bail reform to keep violent criminals off the streets, something one might expect from a former U.S. Attorney. But then he continued:

"At the same time, let us reclaim the lives of those drug offenders who have not committed a violent crime. By investing time and money in drug treatment -- in an in-house, secure facility -- rather than putting them in prison.

Experience has shown that treating non-violent drug offenders is two-thirds less expensive than housing them in prison. And more importantly -- as long as they have not violently victimized society -- everyone deserves a second chance, because no life is disposable.

I am not satisfied to have this as merely a pilot project; I am calling for a transformation of the way we deal with drug abuse and incarceration in every corner of New Jersey.

So today I ask this Legislature and the Chief Justice to join me in this commitment that no life is disposable.

I propose mandatory treatment for every non-violent offender with a drug abuse problem in New Jersey, not just a select few. It will send a clear message to those who have fallen victim to the disease of drug abuse -- we want to help you, not throw you away. We will require you to get treatment. Your life has value. Every one of God's creations can be redeemed."

No life is disposable. That's a message I hear every day from prisoners and their families who write to me and say they feel like society has forgotten them. But it is extremely rare to hear it from an elected official who knows the quickest route to an easy ovation is to rail against all offenders. While Christie acknowledged that drug treatment is far less expensive than prison, his pitch was not budgetary. It was moral, it was human, and it was hopeful.

The reason our sentencing policies, especially with regard to nonviolent, drug offenses, remain so punitive is that we have learned to dehumanize people who break the law. They have become The Other, the ones who asked for it and now are going to get it. This lack of empathy is bewildering in light of the fact that almost all of us know someone good who did something bad.

Governor Christie's words -- and plan for nonviolent drug offenders -- call all of us to the better angels of our nature. To the addict and abuser, Christie says, "Your life has value... We want to help you, not throw you away." This is the exact opposite message that prisoners and their families receive from today's judicial system and bureaucratic prison-industrial complex.

To the rest of us, Christie says, "Everyone deserves a second chance," a belief praised and preached so often in our society that all we have left to do is practice it. We know the uncomfortable truth that, even with a second chance, not everyone can be saved. Some will refuse or be unable to choose a better path. But for those hoping for a shot at redemption, we should stand ready to help.

I have always believed that significant criminal justice reform could not happen until political conservatives and Republicans agreed that change is needed. This is the "Nixon goes to China" view of American politics. Over the past few years, I have been encouraged by the emergence of strong voices on the right speaking out against irrationally harsh sentencing laws. Governor Christie's plan for nonviolent offenders -- coming as it does from a former U.S. Attorney and Republican statewide leader -- has the potential to be a game-changer.

Everyone wants to live in safe houses on safe streets in safe communities. What Christie's speech teaches is that there are smarter ways to achieve this common objective. But all of our plans must begin with the recognition that no life is disposable.