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Jim Kenyon: For T.J. Donovan, Justice Reform Is Personal

  • 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 Geoff Hansen

Published: 12/3/2016 11:02:14 PM
Modified: 12/3/2016 11:02:24 PM

He was 18 years old, just out of high school, when police arrested him for “drinking and fighting” in downtown Burlington. The fistfight, which left his adversary with a chipped tooth, resulted in a criminal charge of aggravated assault.

More than 20 years later, T.J. Donovan is about to become Vermont’s attorney general.

Donovan’s arrest and the subsequent expungement of his criminal record weren’t public information until 2012 when the Burlington weekly Seven Days acted on an anonymous tip that came in the mail.

But unlike many people who are arrested at a young age, Donovan escaped fairly unscathed. He graduated from college, earned a law degree, got a job as a prosecutor in Philadelphia, and won three elections for Chittenden County state’s attorney.

Now following his landslide election in November, Donovan, a Democrat, will soon be the state’s top prosecutor. And, I suspect, a top contender for governor before long.

To his credit, Donovan is now drawing on his personal experience to make the case that the U.S. criminal justice system needs reforming.

The system must change so it’s “not just middle-class white guys like myself who get the benefit of the doubt,” said Donovan while speaking at conference, Re-imagining Justice, held Thursday at Vermont Law School.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the system is stacked against the poor and minorities, Donovan said. “Most prosecutors and judges are middle-class white guys like me,” he told the audience of 150, who ranged from prosecutors to convicted felons, at the event intended to spur interest in finding ways to shift society’s focus from punishment to treatment of offenders.

Donovan is uniquely qualified to talk about overhauling a system that has seen the U.S. prison population more than quadruple to 2.2 million since 1980 and has Vermonters spending $62,000 a year to keep an offender behind bars — roughly the annual cost of attending Dartmouth.

Donovan has seen how the sausage is made.

He grew up in Burlington in a family with six children, of which he was the only boy. His dad, now deceased, was an attorney and his mother is a longtime state legislator.

Donovan’s arrest could have had lifelong consequences. But as part of a plea deal, the aggravated assault charge was reduced to a misdemeanor, and he received a deferred sentence. After doing community service and paying restitution to the victim, the matter was expunged.

He was allowed to get on with his life, which can’t be said for everyone in his predicament. The future of a young person who runs afoul of the law “shouldn’t be based on how much money your parents have and whether they know the right person to call,” he said.

At Thursday’s conference, Donovan told the story of a former Burlington High School football teammate. He hadn’t seen the guy in decades, but recognized the name in a file that recently came across his Chittenden County prosecutor’s desk.

“His old man wasn’t a lawyer and he lived in the poor part of town,” Donovan said. “He had dropped out of high school. He was labeled a troubled kid probably since second or third grade.”

As a state’s attorney for 10 years, Donovan signs off on criminal record expungement requests before they go to a judge. Donovan’s classmate was asking for expungement of an assault charge from 20 years ago.

“Once you become part of the system, it’s hard to get out of the system,” Donovan told the audience. “A majority of people are just asking for a chance to get back to work.”

Unless their criminal records are expunged, many offenders have trouble finding decent-paying jobs.

The goal isn’t to get prosecutors and judges, who tend to be white and products of stable upbringings, to “condone bad behavior, but to understand where (offenders) came from and the challenges they faced — judgment free,” he said.

“Reforming our criminal justice system is the best anti-poverty work we can do in this state,” he added.

Suzi Wizowaty, a former state lawmaker from Burlington who is now executive director of a nonprofit organization called Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, was a leader in organizing Thursday’s conference.

Wizowaty invited Donovan to be the keynote speaker because he’s an “advocate for keeping people out of the system.”

Nationally, the criminal justice reform movement has enjoyed bipartisan support. It might be the only issue that Bernie Sanders and the Koch brothers agree on.

But the movement’s sustainability became much shakier after last month’s elections. Donald Trump campaigned as a law-and-order guy who pledged to “make America safe again.” Judging from his recent tweet that flag burners should spend a year a jail or lose their citizenship, it might be among the few campaign promises that he intends to keep.

In progressive circles, it’s widely believed — feared is more like it — that the U.S. is headed back to the early 1990s when President Clinton and Congress sent billions of dollars to states and local communities willing to expand their crime-fighting efforts and lock up offenders for longer periods of time.

States and local governments will likely again have to choose between accepting federal money to get tough on crime (along with undocumented immigrant workers) and trying to reform a criminal justice system that abuses not only the poor and minorities, but people struggling with mental illness and substance addiction.

“The temptation to accept the money is going to be huge,” said University of Maryland law professor Leigh Goodmark, a speaker at Thursday’s conference. “It’s going to define who we are.”

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