As Vermont’s AG, Donovan to Focus on Criminal Justice Reform

Last month, Vermonters elected T.J. Donovan, 42, to serve as Vermont’s next attorney general. He will replace Attorney General Bill Sorrell, who has held the office since 1997.  Donovan has served as Chittenden County’s state’s attorney for the last decade and is planning an ambitious agenda as Vermont’s attorney general, including significant criminal justice reform on the state level. 

In an interview last week, Donovan outlined some of that agenda:

TJDQUESTION: What are your major goals as Vermont’s attorney general?

DONOVAN: My biggest goal is to simply help Vermonters, wherever they are, whomever they are, and with whatever they need. The Attorney General’s Office has a broad portfolio that touches many different areas. But what I feel passionately about is just helping regular folks with issues that are preventing them from getting ahead or getting by. That could mean helping a small business figure out what the rules and regs are in order for compliance. It could mean making sure that we continue to reform our criminal justice system so we don’t keep people out of upward mobility. It could mean making sure that we’re protecting our environment so we have clean water and clean air. Just being engaged at a really local level -- at a grassroots level -- and helping Vermonters get ahead.

What I believe in is in common sense. I believe in the goodness of people. I believe most people want to do the right thing. And I’m excited to be an Attorney General who, hopefully, responds in a way that helps regular folks get ahead.  

QUESTION:  In Chittenden County, you developed the Rapid Intervention Community Court. Can you speak a little about that? Is that the model for a statewide approach to criminal justice reform?

[Note: The Rapid Intervention Community Court is an award-winning pre-charge diversion program started by Donovan in 2010 for non-violent offenders whose crimes were driven by addiction or mental illness.] 

DONOVAN:  I think it is. Most people who are in jail are there because of addiction and mental illness. We have a heroin epidemic. We also have a mental health crisis in this state… I would say that our largest mental health facility is our jails.  As state’s attorney, I just started seeing the same folks day in and day out, coming into the criminal court system—mostly poor, uneducated, unemployed or under-employed with an addiction issue or mental health issue. The traditional approach through the criminal justice system is, you really have three different types of responses: you can put them in jail; they’re going to get out. You can put them on probation and ask them to comply with certain conditions that they’re not going to be able to. Or you can ask them to pay a monetary fine that they’re never going to pay because they don’t have any money.

It created this cycle of recidivism and failure. I don’t think it was making our community more safe. I think it was making our community less safe. It cost a whole lot of money, too. We spend more money on corrections in this state than we do on higher education.

QUESTION: Do you have numbers on that?

DONOVAN: Our corrections budget is roughly $150 million. It costs more than $73,000 a year to incarcerate a woman. It costs about $59,000 to incarcerate a man.

QUESTION: Per year?

DONOVAN: Per year. And we have a recidivism rate of, I think, close to 50 percent -- meaning five out of 10 people who are in our jails are back in our jails, at a cost not only to the taxpayer, but to the individual and to our community. And so I said, “Let’s try something different.”

If most people are coming in because of addiction, because of mental illness, I think what a safe community looks like is a community where people are sober, are healthy, are stable, are housed, and hopefully working. … [The Rapid Intervention Community Court] was about redefining what accountability is. We’d do compliance checks at 30, 60, 90 days. And my point was: if somebody’s in treatment, somebody’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing in the community and they’re in compliance, that’s going to make us more safe as a society than convicting somebody of a retail theft and asking them to pay $200 that they don’t have.

QUESTION: How was that effort received, was there any pushback?

DONOVAN: Of course there was pushback, it was different. But it worked. And that was the difference. When you look at the traditional system, you can’t justify the numbers. You can’t justify the $150 million that the Vermont taxpayers are paying.

QUESTION: I saw you that have said, “The best form of public safety is a good job.”

DONOVAN: Absolutely. Because, again, any courthouse you go to, any jail you go to, you’re going to see the poor. And you ask yourself the question: why?

The poor don’t have a monopoly on committing crime, but that is who is represented in the criminal justice system, by and large. And it becomes a cycle … Poverty plays a role in this. What neighborhoods are being enforced? Who’s getting arrested and for what? What type of lawyer do you have or do you even have a lawyer? All these different variables play out. And poverty is the one constant in it. The poor get the short end of the stick.

…  And what that leads to is the marginalization of folks by virtue of having criminal records. Criminal records prevent people from getting jobs, period. We get petitions every week—probably every day -- in the criminal justice system from folks who are trying to get old criminal histories expunged so they can get a job. It’s mostly for minimum wage work. What we’ve done is we’ve marginalized so many people in the name of “public safety” and it has not worked. We are more safe when people are working. Give people the opportunity, because here’s the thing -- there’s no judge, and there’s no prosecutor, when that case was adjudicated and the sentence was imposed, that they ever thought that they were sentencing this person to a lifetime of poverty. But that’s what’s happened.

QUESTION: What would you do first, in terms of criminal justice reform?

DONOVAN: I’m a big believer in expunging criminal records because we have to hit the reset button. It is some of the best anti-poverty work we can do. So, expunging old criminal histories -- and it’s not sex offenses and murders -- I’m talking the low-level stuff. It’s the low-level stuff that’s kept people out of the mainstream of society, upward mobility because they can’t get that job. Create the infrastructure in the community for alternatives, not just to incarceration, but alternatives to the criminal justice system.