"I've been called a lot of things," he said. "Soft isn't one of them."
Christie made the announcement at the Cathedral Kitchen on Federal Street, a community group that has offered free meals to the poor for more than 30 years.
Since 2008, the organization has run a culinary-arts program for ex-inmates and others who need job skills.
During his tour, Christie navigated the busy kitchen, where five men crowded around a table chopping green peppers and celery for chili that would be served to the nearly 400 people expected to show up for dinner Monday night. Farther down the kitchen assembly line, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies sat cooling on white parchment paper.
Christie said his wife, Mary Pat, wanted him to focus on giving former inmates a legitimate second chance. Drug addiction often thwarts a former inmate's return to society, along with the difficulty in finding employment because of a criminal record.
"We're missing the boat in terms of how we can help these people turn their lives around," Christie said as his wife stood by his side.
Christie called for expanding the state's drug-court program, which has operated in all 21 counties since 2004 and diverts nonviolent drug offenders from jail to treatment programs.
The two pilot programs will allow judges to sentence drug offenders directly to the program, rather than requiring offenders to seek enrollment in the program, said Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts.
Christie said he was still working with the judiciary to determine the best location for the two pilot programs.
Graduates of the drug-court program are less likely to return to crime, according to an October 2010 study by the state judiciary.
Only 16 percent of drug-court graduates are rearrested, compared with 54 percent of nonviolent drug offenders who enter the prison system. And only 8 percent of those who go through drug court are convicted of another crime, compared with 43 percent of nonviolent drug offenders who are imprisoned.
The country's prison population escalated sharply in the 1980s and 1990s when mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders put more nonviolent offenders behind bars.
As prison budgets have grown, state officials have looked to alternative sentencing to ease the burden. It costs about $39,000 a year to incarcerate a person in New Jersey. It costs $11,300 to put that same person through the drug-court program, which includes frequent drug testing and intensive supervision.
The "War on Drugs" - an effort that began under President Richard M. Nixon to reduce drug sales and use in the United States - was well-intentioned, Christie said. But it isn't working as officials had hoped.
"Just putting people in prison for nonviolent drug offenses makes no sense for our society in the long haul," he said.
Christie appointed Lisa Puglisi as his coordinator for prisoner reentry. Puglisi, a lawyer who represented the Department of Corrections and later the state Parole Board, will serve as the governor's main adviser on prisoner-reentry policy.
Puglisi, with James Plousis, chairman of the Parole Board, will cochair the Task Force for Recidivism Reduction.
The task force will include representatives of various agencies that can help, and sometimes hinder, an ex-convict's reentry into society.
Obtaining a license or official ID, managing child-support payments, even getting a job in a restaurant where liquor is served can, without the right assistance, be difficult or impossible for an inmate, Plousis said. The task force aims to find the problems and help ex-inmates overcome them.
Although New Jersey, like Pennsylvania, has a recidivism rate of at least 40 percent, according to a recent study by the Pew Center on the States, New Jersey has decreased its rate 11 percent since 1999. It has also reduced its prison population 11 percent to 21,182 inmates since its peak in 1999.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania's prison population continues to increase. It's up 41 percent since 1999, and the state now holds more than 51,000 people.
New Jersey currently spends more than $225 million on reentry and prevention programs and more than $40 million on drug court.
The costs for Christie's new plans were not available Monday, but he thinks they will save money in the long run. His order includes a system to track the efficacy of reentry programs.
"I think people in New Jersey are willing to invest in these programs," he said. "They want to know if they're getting results for it."
Patricia McKernan, chief operating officer of Volunteers of America, Delaware Valley, which operates halfway houses in the state, said she was pleased that the governor was looking into reentry barriers. But she said she hopes it goes beyond drug treatment.
"It's not just drug addiction, it's more than that," she said. "We really need to change the attitude . . . toward crime."
Since Cathedral Kitchen began accepting former inmates into its culinary-arts program, its graduation rate is 80 percent.
Victor Carrasco, 38, of Camden, one of the program's 16 students this term, said it had changed his life. Four years ago, he was convicted of selling cocaine and spent a year and a half in jail. He then had trouble finding work or a way to afford school.
"I was about to give up and go right back" to selling drugs, he said, "until this program saved me."
Now, he's one of three students hired at a Marlton restaurant. He has been working as a grill cook at the restaurant for a few weeks already, but said he would continue to volunteer at Cathedral Kitchen.
"Everything they gave me," he said, "I feel like I want to give back."
Contact staff writer Joelle Farrell at firstname.lastname@example.org, 856-779-3237, or @joellefarrell on Twitter.