MIDDLEBURY — TJ Donovan is seeking to graduate from chief prosecutor in the state’s most populous county to the chief law enforcement officer for the entire state.
Fulfilling that goal will be no small task, and Donovan, 38, knows it. He would need to prevail in an Aug. 28 Democratic primary contest against 15-year incumbent Attorney General Bill Sorrell, and then compete in the General Election in November.
Donovan said his candidacy is nothing personal against Sorrell.
“I am not running against Bill; I am running for the office,” Donovan said during a May 3 interview with the Addison Independent.
“After 15 years, we should have a debate about the attorney general’s office,” he added. “Bill Sorrell hasn’t really been challenged in 15 years about the office and the role the office plays. I do think it’s time for a change and time for some new ideas.”
Donovan believes the needed change should come in the form of an attorney general who is more proactive in legislative committee rooms in assessing — and commenting on — bills that he or she might have to defend in court.
It is that kind of homework, Donovan said, that would make for a savvier attorney general’s office and perhaps stem some expensive court cases. He noted the state spent hundreds of thousands of dollars arguing its campaign finance reform law and Vermont Yankee closure positions in the federal court system. Donovan said he sympathizes with Sorrell’s setbacks in those two cases, but believes the attorney general’s office could have done more to warn of potential legal pitfalls while the legislation was in the works.
“As we go forward, I believe the attorney general can be engaged with the Legislature and work with the Legislature in the committee rooms when bills are being discussed or debated … so when they are passed, they can stand up in the court of law,” Donovan said.
On some of the bigger and more controversial cases — such as campaign finance reform — the state might be better off pushing for incremental change than all-or-nothing legislation, according to Donovan.
“Change does not always come at once; it comes in increments,” he said. “Let’s not do ‘one step forward, three steps back’ when we lose these cases.
“I don’t think anyone in this state has the stomach to lose another big case,” he added. “We can’t continue to lose millions of dollars of taxpayer money on legal fees on laws that we knew, when they were signed into law, were arguably unconstitutional.”
If elected, Donovan pledged to have the attorney general’s office play a more active role in the public safety arenas.
“We have a corrections budget of $137 million to $140 million that is growing, and we haven’t gotten the result we want with that growth in taxpayer dollars,” he said.
Vermont’s recidivism rate has been placed at over 40 percent, according to Donovan.
“Five out of 10 people who get out of jail are back in,” Donovan said.
In response, Donovan said the attorney general should promote programs aimed at preventing people from committing crimes. For example, Donovan noted he initiated the Rapid Intervention Community Court in Chittenden County in 2010, a pilot project designed to address the root cause of criminal behavior by partnering with community service organizations. The program puts nonviolent offenders on probation with the caveat that they take advantage of local human services, such as substance abuse counseling.
It is a program that Donovan — state’s attorney since 2006 — said has been effective in preventing repeat offenders in the Chittenden County court system.
“We have diverted over 600 individuals in 16 months,” Donovan said of the program. “We have a compliance rate of over 75 percent. We are enhancing public safety and we are doing it in a cost-effective way.”
There are currently drug courts only in Chittenden and Rutland counties, according to Donovan.
He believes a common thread connects the many faces he sees in the courtroom on arraignment days: poverty, which leads to other issues.
“The criminal justice system has become the last safety net.
“It is a war on poverty, it is a war on mental illness, it is a war on substance abuse,” Donovan said. “The attorney general can lead.”
Other issues that Donovan is citing on the campaign trail include:
• Health care. He pledged to work with the Legislature in crafting a health care law that “stands up in the court of law.”
• Consumer rights. “Standing up for the middle class, the working class and the working poor of Vermont means having an attorney general willing to go to bat for every Vermonter,” Donovan wrote on his campaign website. “As attorney general, I’ll make sure consumers are protected and not taken advantage of by predatory corporate practices.”
• Safe communities.
• Transparency. He promised to “develop best practices that balance the public’s right to know with an individual’s privacy. I know that the public’s trust is something the government can never lose.”
• Public engagement. He said he would be sure Vermonters are the first to know about “cases that impact their daily lives” by using web tools to engage, communicate and inform.
Donovan said the Vermont Sheriffs Association and a coalition of more than 120 lawyers throughout the state are supporting his candidacy.
“I’m working hard,” he said. “I think my message is resonating.”
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.