New Jersey’s Democrat governor Phil Murphy won the office in part on a suicidal promise to end “mass incarceration” in the Garden State. Unlike other promises delivered by politicians in the pitched atmosphere of the campaign season, he wasn’t dissembling to voters. For once, that wasn’t a good thing.
To keep his promise, Murphy — a former Goldman Sachs executive and ambassador to Germany under the Obama administration — has championed the early release of prisoners convicted of certain crimes, most of which he’s insinuated are non-violent drug offenders. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he also wants to legalize Willie Nelson’s favorite medicinal herb.
In his budget address just three months ago, Murphy said that marijuana legalization “will allow us to reinvest directly in our communities — especially the urban neighborhoods hardest hit by the misguided War on Drugs — in their economic development, in health care and housing, child care and after-school programs, and other critical areas. These investments will pay dividends far greater than the cost of mass incarceration.”
He also restarted the Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission, which was founded in 2009 but had been stagnant since former Gov. Chris Christie had refused to appoint any members or hold any meetings.
“We can and must do better,” a statement from Murphy announcing the commission’s reboot read. “A Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission can undertake the important review of our sentencing laws and recommend reforms necessary to ensure a stronger, fairer and more just state.”
I’m going to assume “fairer and more just” sentencing laws probably didn’t involve longer sentences.
One glance at the governor’s official website, however, shows that while he may couch the end of “mass incarceration” in the language of drug legalization, it’s something more than that.
“New Jersey has the shameful distinction of having the largest black-white incarceration gap of any state in the country,” the website reads. “Governor Murphy will address this problem by bringing law enforcement and the community together, as he did when he brokered the first meeting between the head of the state PBA and the state chapter of the NAACP. He will end mass incarceration by pursuing the legalization of marijuana and comprehensively reviewing all criminal sentencing laws. Governor Murphy will also ensure that all of our communities are safe.”
He seems to have failed on this last count. On Sunday, at roughly 3 a.m., 33-year-old Tahaji Wells opened fire at the Art All Night festival in Trenton, the state capital. One person was killed and 22 were injured, according to Fox News. KYW-TV reported that 17 were wounded. One of the wounded is reported to be 13-years-old. The shooting is believed to be gang-related.
Wells wasn’t supposed to be out on the street. In 2004, he was convicted of aggravated manslaughter in the shooting death of a 22-year-old man. He’d received an 18-year sentence, which meant he would be out on the street in 2022. However, while in prison, he had a further six years tacked on after pleading guilty to a second-degree racketeering charge related to helping run the gang in prison. However, in February, Wells was released.
This didn’t sound a whole lot like ensuring “that all of our communities are safe.” Nor does aggravated manslaughter sound like getting caught with a half an ounce of purple haze and getting railroaded to the hoosegow. This probably wasn’t the kind of end to “mass incarceration” most Jerseyites had in mind.
Gov. Murphy, naturally, found no blame in his policies. Instead, it was that perfidious Second Amendment that’s responsible for all this mess.
There was first this self-serving tweet, which said that the occasion of a gang-related shooting was “not inappropriate times to talk about gun policy. These are the most important times to talk about gun policy.” Apparently, it wasn’t an appropriate time to talk about his policies on “mass incarceration,” at least if we were to believe a news conference Murphy held less than 24 hours after the attack.
We awoke to news of a mass shooting right here in Trenton.
Art All Night is a time when we all come together. We cannot let gun violence tear us apart.
These are not inappropriate times to talk about gun policy. These are the most important times to talk about gun policy. pic.twitter.com/EJtM7iLOPN
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) June 17, 2018
“It’s yet another reminder of the senseless gun violence, even having signed six stringent gun laws last week,” Murphy said.
“We know we’re getting stronger and better but we’re a long way from getting rid of this senselessness.”
Yes, he enacted six stringent gun laws and for whatever reason, Wells — a felon who shouldn’t have been in the possession of a firearm in any state — had the gall not to turn his weapon in! How could he?!
If only there was a way that this could have been prevented under the aegis of the existing laws of the state of New Jersey without infringing on New Jerseyans’ ability to exercise their Second Amendment rights. Alas, I’ve racked my poor noggin and come up up with nothing, so I suppose it’s more restrictive gun laws.
Wells had twice been convicted of felonies, at least one of which was definitively gang-related. He was supposed to be in prison for another decade. And he was let out on the street.
Counterintuitively, Murphy has also cut funds from prisoner re-entry programs which provided job training and reportedly reduced recidivism among convicts re-entering society and the workforce. One might think that when you’re putting convicts back out on the street as a matter of policy, that might be one program you want to keep.
What happened in Trenton early Sunday morning was a despicable tragedy. But it was also a failure of leadership on so many levels. Gun laws weren’t going to stop Tahaji Wells. Kumbaya sessions between the state PBA and NAACP or tweets about how this is the perfect time to talk about Phil Murphy’s agenda weren’t going to stop Tahaji Wells. Incarceration was. Prisoner re-entry programs may have. A concealed carrier might have, as well.
Sunday’s tragedy should never have happened, but not for the reasons Phil Murphy would like to think. Now, it’s time for the voters to force their governor to accept responsibility for what he hath wrought.
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