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At Campaign Launch, TJ Donovan Calls For Criminal Justice Reform

Taylor Dobbs
Chittenden County State's Attorney TJ Donovan started his run for Attorney General with an eye toward criminal justice reform.

Chittenden County State’s Attorney TJ Donovan launched his second campaign for Attorney General in Burlington Thursday to a crowd of more than 100 prominent Democrats and supporters.

Donovan is the party favorite for the state’s top law enforcement post; incumbent Democratic Attorney General Bill Sorrell announced in September that he will not seek reelection.

At his campaign launch at the St. John’s Club in Burlington, the 41-year-old prosecutor said he hopes to help underserved and disadvantaged Vermonters using the power of the attorney general’s office.

“Those issues of inequality, of unfair treatment, still exist,” he said, “whether it’s the poor, whether it’s the sick, whether it’s people of color, people who are in the criminal justice system or members of the LGBTQ community. My campaign is about providing a level playing field for all Vermonters, so everybody gets a chance for success in this state.”

Donovan said he hopes to work toward those goals through criminal justice reform.

“We truly have to acknowledge it’s a civil rights issue, because folks who have old misdemeanor convictions, who can’t get a job, who can’t get a house, are truly being treated as second-class citizens. It happens every single day in this state and it’s got to change. We talk about the most vulnerable in this state. Do you want to meet them? Go down to the criminal courts. They’re there. It’s the victims. It’s the defendants.”

Within the court system, Donovan called for a “philosophical shift” for prosecutors in Vermont.

“We have to listen more, judge less, invest in restorative justice and less in punitive justice,” he said.

"No more private prisons. End the contracts with the for profit companies ... and bring the Vermonters home. This is a moral test of our generation in this state." - TJ Donovan

Donovan also came out with a strong stance in opposition to the state’s policy of sending Vermont inmates to private prisons in other states.

“When we do incarcerate people in this state, the state of Vermont has a moral obligation to do it itself,” he said. “No more private prisons. End the contracts with the for profit companies … and bring the Vermonters home. This is a moral test of our generation in this state.”

As prosecutor in the state’s most populated county, Donovan has been widely recognized for his use of pre-trial diversion programs and community justice practices to address opiate use in Chittenden County. Gov. Peter Shumlin  adopted the model for statewide use in 2014 in an effort to curb what he called an “opiate epidemic.”

Donovan’s campaign has broad support from the Democratic establishment, and it’s a campaign that’s reportedly been planned for years. Seven Days columnist Paul Heintzreported Sept. 30 that the attorney general had promised in the fall of 2013 not to run in 2016 in exchange for a promise from Donovan not to challenge him in the 2014 primary.

"T.J.'s well-respected. I think he's got a good shot this time," [State Senator Dick] Mazza said Friday, before Sorrell announced his intentions. "Nothing against Bill [Sorrell], but I've heard he's not running again." In fact, Mazza said he heard that directly from Sorrell — nearly two years ago. Though the two candidates had previously denied it, Mazza confirmed a long-rumored garage meeting he hosted in the fall of 2013 to broker a truce between Sorrell and Donovan. Then-secretary of transportation Brian Searles was also there when Donovan promised he wouldn't run in 2014, and Sorrell promised he would retire after that, according to Mazza. Donovan and Searles confirmed the meeting.

The undivided support of the state’s top Democrats has already shown in this campaign. While his 2012 campaign launch party continued well after the speeches, people had to leave Thursday’s event early because the fire marshal found the St. John’s Club to be over its 125-person capacity.

Taylor was VPR's digital reporter from 2013 until 2017. After growing up in Vermont, he graduated with at BA in Journalism from Northeastern University in 2013.
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