NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- Attorney General candidate TJ Donovan has laid out a "second chance" criminal policy for the state that includes decriminalizing marijuana.
Donovan, the Chittenden County states attorney, is in a tough primary against Democratic incumbent Attorney General William Sorrell. Despite securing several high-profile endorsements from unions and lawmakers, Donovan is still the underdog against Sorrell, who has held the post for 15 years.
"Halting the revolving door"
Donovan said his policy announcement Wednesday is aimed at "halting the revolving door of incarceration by working to build better citizens." He said his plan will lower recidivism and focus on non-violent offenders that have "paid their debt to society."
"We need a criminal justice system that matches our community ideals and everyday lives. Getting a second chance is an ideal I think most Vermonters believe in, but our criminal justice system doesn’t reflect that and we are missing out on an opportunity to help get people back on the right track to being productive members of our community," Donovan said.
Donovan said his plan calls for:
* Working with the Department of Corrections to better prepare those convicted of crimes for re-entering society with information about food, shelter, education and employment opportunities;
* Decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana;
* Working on programs to reduce prescription drug abuse;
* When appropriate, redirecting resources to public health instead of incarceration;
* Providing opportunities for the expungement or sealing of criminal records when it makes sense.
Donovan said many nonviolent offenders cannot function successfully in society after completing sentences because they are tagged as criminals. Housing and employment become nearly impossible for many to find.
Meanwhile, Donovan said the state needs a "common sense approach to drug policy." Law enforcement and judicial resources should be directed at a growing prescription drug abuse problem in Vermont, which has led to associated property crimes, he said. Decriminalizing marijuana would allow that.
Still, Donovan said he was not advocating legalizing marijuana. Civil penalties and fines would still be levied for those caught with marijuana, he said.
"I will work with the legislature to ensure that any decriminalization law includes civil penalties and community intervention. Like Gov. [Peter] Shumlin, Department of Public Safety Commissioner [Keith] Flynn, the majority of Vermonters and most of our neighboring states, I support the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana because not only is it good criminal justice policy but it’s also good economic policy," Donovan said. "Ultimately this is an issue of collateral consequences. When young Vermonters are ineligible to receive student loans because of a minor marijuana conviction, that troubles me. Instead of marginalizing people of who have stumbled, we need to encourage them to get back on track become productive members of their communities."
Donovan said his policy would improve outcomes for Vermont offenders and save taxpayer money in the Department of Corrections budget.
"The policy I propose today is about building better communities and giving individuals, who have paid for their mistakes, the tools they need to become productive members of those communities," he said. "When it comes down to it, this isn’t just about saving lives and stopping the revolving door of incarceration. This is about saving Vermont taxpayer dollars by upgrading our criminal justice system to be more efficient and better serve Vermont in the 21st century."