NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- Democratic Attorney General candidate TJ Donovan pledged to bring new energy and new ideas to the office at a forum in Bennington Wednesday night ahead of the Aug. 28 primary against incumbent Attorney General William Sorrell.
Donovan, the Chittenden County State's Attorney, told the small crowd gathered at the Bennington Fire House that it was time for a change in that office. Sorrell has served in the post for the last 15 years.
"We know that the world has changed, we know that Vermont has changed in the last 15 years," he said.
Donovan responded to several questions asked by host Michael Bethel, and Democratic Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears. He said he is not opposed to the use of Tasers by Vermont law enforcement agencies, but the issue should be decided by each community.
"Number one, I think that local communities should decide if their local police departments use Tasers. We should have local control on this issue," Donovan said.
As attorney general, Donovan said he would push for a statewide policy that agencies would have to adopt before outfitting officers. Several groups, including the ACLU, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns and mental health professionals should have a seat at the table when the policy is crafted, he said.
The state must also focus on effectively dealing with mental health issues in law enforcement. He said the Burlington Police Department has counselors riding with some officers to help with some issues. That policy could be spread statewide, according to Donovan.
"This is something that the attorney general as the chief law enforcement officer can lean on," he said.
Donovan said the state's main criminal justice problem is prescription drug abuse. He touted a plan he announced this week that would address the issue by seeking more treatment for those that commit low-level crimes because of addiction.
Donovan said he would also focus on reducing elder abuse. He said 84 percent of cases go unreported because of the stigma attached to it. Donovan said a plan he implemented in Chittenden County could also be spread statewide. It allows those charged with crimes to be assessed before going to court. Those with substance abuse or mental health problems can be diverted to treatment, and if completed successfully, charges are dropped, Donovan said. The program has an 80 percent compliance rate, he said.
"There's only one person that could implement that. It's the attorney general, because the attorney general is the only one with statewide jurisdiction," Donovan said. "Very few people pass up the opportunity to get help."
The criminal justice system does not work well for the type of low-level crime that is on the rise in Vermont, he said. "That system works for the very serious crimes. It doesn't work for those that are driven by drugs, alcohol and mental health issues," he said.
Donovan pledged to seek a statewide system of justice that allows crimes in each county to be handled similarly. He said each of the state's 14 counties handle crimes in different ways. Donovan said he would use the office to bring fairness to the system.
"This is an issue of fairness. It's an issue of justice. It's an issue that should be addressed," Donovan said. "I truly think what's missing is an engaged attorney general willing to work with states attorneys, willing to collaborate on what best practices look like," he added.
Donovan said he does not support legalizing marijuana. But, he said, he does support decriminalizing the possession of small amounts and making it a civil violation. That would end the problem of students being denied federal loans because of a drug conviction.
"In my opinion, no young person who is convicted for possessing a small amount of marijuana should lose their eligibility for federal student loans," he said.
Donovan asked those at the forum to look further at his policies and consider voting for him in the primary.
"I feel very strongly that no job, no elected position belongs to any particular position," he said. "It is time to have a debate about the issues and what we can do differently, and in my mind, what we can do better."
Sorrell is expected to attend a similar forum on Friday at 6:30 p.m. at the Bennington Fire House.