Candidate Name: TJ Donovan
Campaign mailing address, email, and phone:
8 Keari Lane
South Burlington, VT 05403
1. Over the last 40 years, Vermont’s population grew by 35% while its prison population grew by more than 300%, resulting in an annual cost to taxpayers of roughly $150 million in incarceration costs alone. If elected, will you commit to helping Vermont reduce its prison population by at least 50%?
Throughout my career I have worked to reduce Vermont's incarcerated population. As Attorney General, I have continued this work. In Vermont, almost 50% of people who serve time in prison return to prison for another offense after they are released. We must invest in effective alternative justice programs to address the underlying causes of harmful behavior. These have been proven to have lower rates of re-offense, and this keeps communities safer. Simply continuing to incarcerate people is not working. We need to approach the issue of recidivism differently. That is why I have worked to expand diversion and pretrial services to every county in the state- doubling the rate of diverted cases in the last two years.
2. Two thirds of Vermont voters want to reduce our prison population and increase alternatives to incarceration. What specific legislative reforms will you advocate in the next biennium to reduce Vermont’s reliance on incarceration, and for each of those reforms, if enacted, how many detainees and/or prisoners do you estimate could be resentenced, released, or diverted to alternatives?
Reducing our incarcerated population through meaningful reforms to Vermont’s criminal justice system is a top priority in my office. This past legislative session, we championed a bail reform bill that is now law. The bill will reduce the number of pre-trial detainees by preventing people from being held solely due to their inability to pay. In the next biennium, we should examine the possibility of moving towards a system partially based on risk assessments to further reduce our pre-trial detainee population and ensure that people who pose a risk to public safety are being held.
My office also pushed to expand access to expungements. We worked to make the expungement process faster and in cases that don’t result in a conviction the process is now automatic. Expunging people’s criminal records gives them the opportunity to be a part of their community; to get a job, to further their education, and to provide for their families. I feel strongly that people should not be barred from opportunities to make their lives better. Certainly, in cases where the person is not convicted, they deserve a fresh start. Looking forward, we will work to further expand access to expungements.
My office is going to continue our efforts in increasing access to alternative justice programs. We are also looking to support the judiciary in their newly re-established Sentencing Commission. This Commission has been directed by the legislature to ensure fair sentencing and reduce maximum sentences where appropriate.
These tools will help reduce Vermont’s incarcerated population. I am committed to working towards this goal and will continue to look for innovative ways to reduce the number of Vermonters in prison.
3. Vermont’s Department of Corrections (DOC) does not release aggregate data that would allow for analysis of Vermont’s inmate population by race, gender, age, disability, county, offense, or length of sentence. Will you advocate for DOC to start collecting, analyzing, and releasing aggregate data on Vermont’s inmate population to assist policymakers and the public in crafting smarter criminal justice policies?
Yes. It is important that our approach to reducing our incarcerated population is data driven. Having accurate information about who DOC has in their custody can help drive effective, innovative and thoughtful policies to reduce that population.
4. Police records show that people of color are disproportionately stopped and searched by Vermont law enforcement, and racial disparities in Vermont’s prison system are among the worst in the nation. What new policies will you advance to better address systemic racism in Vermont’s criminal justice system specifically, and in Vermont as a whole?
We need a paradigm shift in culture to solve the issue of racism and bias in our criminal justice system. Addressing issues of racism in Vermont is imperative; it is a matter of basic human equality.
My office worked to create the Fair and Impartial Policing policy (FIP) with other stakeholders including the Human Rights Commission, the American Civil Liberties Union and Migrant Justice, among others. The FIP bans biased policing, requires reporting of biased incidents, and requires training about biases. The FIP is an important step towards addressing the issue of system racism and bias, but we need to ensure compliance with this new policy.
Last year, our office convened the Racial Disparities Panel. The work of this Panel will be important in our efforts to make our criminal justice system more equitable. The Panel examines implicit bias across all aspects of the criminal justice system. Having honest conversations about bias in our courts, prosecutor’s offices, police stations and schools is essential. But there is much more work that needs to be done to ensure that people are treated fairly in this system.We need achieve equal access to justice and ensure procedural justice to address the racial disparities that exist in our system. For example, reducing the use of cash bail for low-level misdemeanors, an initiative spearheaded by my office, will reduce the instances when bias can negatively affect a defendant who could formerly have been incarcerated before trial.
Both the FIP and the Racial Disparities Panel are good initial steps towards addressing the issue of racism and bias in our systems. But these are issues that require a paradigm shift in our culture. The choices of decision makers in our criminal justice system- prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, law enforcement officers- need to be examined to identify bias and end it.
5. There is growing consensus about the need for public health-centered approaches to substance use and addiction that emphasize decriminalization and harm reduction, increase access to treatment, and do not involve prosecution for drug possession. What new policies will you advance to increase access to treatment and reduce incarceration for drug crimes in Vermont?
Substance use disorder and the opiate epidemic are the number one public health crisis in this state. We cannot arrest our way to healthier people and communities.
Progress in this endeavor is predicated on enforcement, intervention, treatment and prevention. Many people suffering from substance use disorder end up in the criminal justice system because of their disease: they steal only to feed their habit. Many of these are not violent offenders and we would be better served if they are effectively treated in the community with appropriate treatment. Efforts at prevention would stop the next generation from ever getting started and possibly having contact with the justice system.
For people suffering from substance use disorder that do end up in our criminal justice system, we need to invest in new ways of approaching these cases. My office administers the Tamarack and Pretrial Services Programs, both of which assist court-involved individuals in getting the treatment they need to address substance use disorders. We began the Tamarack Program, and greatly expanded Pretrial Services, on my watch as Attorney General, and we need to continue expanding those programs.
We also need to expand access to treatment courts. Treatment courts provide high-needs defendants with a supportive team that helps them pursue work, education and treatment so they can stay sober and achieve a better life. This is the kind the support people suffering from this disease need, and it leads to safer communities and cost savings for the state. I am working to expand access to treatment courts because they are doing the essential work of giving people the care and support they need to be safe, contributing members of our communities.