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Jim Kenyon: Reformer in Chief

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Saturday, May 05, 2018

TJ Donovan is against building a new 925-bed “mega-prison” in Vermont. He’s critical of the state for spending tens of millions more annually on corrections than higher education. He questions the way prosecutors tend to wield their power.

Those are hardly radical positions, but don’t forget that Donovan is Vermont’s attorney general. Isn’t the state’s top law enforcement officer supposed to be a tough-on-crime guy?

Donovan, a former Chittenden County state’s attorney who was elected attorney general in 2016, brings a refreshing approach to the job. He argues the key to reducing crime isn’t always locking up bad guys. It’s more about improving access to substance abuse treatment programs, good public schools, affordable housing and mental health care.

“We’ve made a lot of progress in Vermont, but we have a lot more to do,” Donovan said during his keynote address at the annual fundraising dinner for Hartford Dismas House last Sunday.

Donovan, 44, was taking in the sights in Washington with his family a few days before the fundraiser when he got a call from Dismas founder Rita McCaffrey. Marty Boldin, who is New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu’s policy adviser on prevention, treatment and recovery, was supposed to headline the event, but had to cancel at the last minute due to a death in the family.

“I always say yes to Dismas because I believe in its mission,” Donovan told the organization’s supporters at the Fireside Inn in West Lebanon.

Dismas is a nonprofit organization that provides affordable housing in a supportive environment for people just out of prison. In addition to Hartford, Dismas has two residences in Burlington and another in Rutland.

During his short time in office, Donovan has made good use of his bully pulpit to advocate for criminal justice reform.

In January, Gov. Phil Scott floated the idea of the state partnering with a for-profit prison company to build a $150 million prison “campus” in northwestern Vermont.

“The thing with this jail is: if you build it, you gotta fill it,” Donovan wrote in Vermont Business Magazine.

At the Dismas dinner, Donovan highlighted the disparity in state spending between corrections and higher education. “We’re spending more on locking people up than sending them to colleges,” he said.

The Department of Corrections budget is more than $150 million a year while the state devotes less than $100 million in tax dollars to higher education. Nationally, Vermont ranks last in higher education spending, according to an Illinois State University study. (New Hampshire is 49th.)

Donovan also talked about how his thinking has changed over the years. He grew up in a large Irish Catholic family (five sisters) in Burlington’s South End. His dad was an attorney and his mother was a teacher. (She’s now a state legislator.)

After law school, Donovan became an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia. On his daily walk to the courthouse, he passed boarded up storefronts and abandoned houses in a hardscrabble North Philly neighborhood.

Most of his time was spent prosecuting young African-American males for possession of crack cocaine with intent to distribute.

“It should be no surprise that people end up in our criminal justice system coming out of these environments,” he said. “The starting line isn’t the same for all of us.”

As a young prosecutor, he fell into the trap of measuring success by the number of convictions he could rack up. Is the charge going to be a felony or a misdemeanor? Is there an opportunity to charge multiple felonies? What about a plea bargain?

Prosecutors need to give more thought to the long-term effects of their approach. “If (a defendant) walks out of the courtroom with a felony, it’s tough to get a job and be a productive citizen,” Donovan said. “We have to rethink our policies. We have to believe in second, third and fourth chances.”

At the end of Donovan’s speech, the crowd of 200 or so gave him a standing ovation. I’m not sure he would have received the same response if he’d been addressing Vermont’s law enforcement community.

On Friday, I talked with Orange County Sheriff Bill Bohnyak, who is president of the Vermont Sheriffs’ Association. What do cops think about the job that Donovan is doing?

“We have a good relationship, but we’re not always on the same page,” Bohnyak said. “We’re the ones out on the streets dealing with people who are sometimes doing things they shouldn’t be doing.”

Reducing Vermont’s prison population by releasing nonviolent offenders — which Donovan wholeheartedly supports — has repercussions, Bohnyak said.

He points to people struggling with opiate addiction who commit crimes to support their habits.

“They need to be in jail, and that’s probably where we (and Donovan) disagree,” Bohnyak told me.

I also spoke to Bobby Sand, a former Windsor County state’s attorney who now is director of the Center for Justice Reform at Vermont Law School.

“Historically, even (candidates) who call themselves liberal would move to the right side of the spectrum when it comes election time under the presumption that the public would only support candidates who are tough on crime,” Sand said.

But Donovan has proved an exception, Sand added. “He has doubled and tripled down on his vision of reforming the criminal justice system.”

Donovan is seeking re-election this fall, but it’s no secret in Montpelier that a run for governor or Congress is probably somewhere in the not-so-distant future.

Sand said that Donovan’s message about criminal justice reform seems to be “resonating with a majority of Vermonters.”

We can only hope.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.