VT Digger: TJ Donovan: Looking to Spread a Progressive Vision of Justice 

by Elizabeth Hewitt
Published October 2, 2016
It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t like Chittenden County State’s Attorney TJ Donovan.

Lawyers he used to work with praise his conviction. “He’s not a weatherman like some politicians,” said one.

Mental health experts, often cautious of traditional approaches to law and order, praise his progressive policies. “He really is a visionary.”

There are the defendants he has developed relationships with. A mental health expert said one addict recently told a group therapy session, “TJ really thinks of me as a real guy, a real man. I’m not just a … criminal.”

Over the course of nearly 10 years in the state’s attorney’s office of Vermont’s most populous county, Donovan has developed a glowing reputation — and a growing fan base — as a prosecutor who comes down hard on serious crime while rolling out progressive ground-level criminal justice reform.

Now, Donovan is running to become Vermont’s next attorney general against St. Johnsbury attorney Deborah Bucknam, the Republican nominee.

Many observers are waiting to see how Donovan would take on a statewide office, of which criminal justice is just one small piece.

A BURLINGTON NATIVE

Tall and lanky, with the ease and confidence of a born politician and the raspy voice of a college basketball coach, Donovan, 42, speaks quickly and segues easily between conversations. During an hourlong conversation in a downtown Burlington coffee shop, his responses were often punctuated by brief cordial greetings as acquaintances passed by.

Donovan is a Burlington native who now lives in South Burlington with his wife, Jessica McCloud, a mental health counselor, and two children, ages 4 and 6. He grew up in the city’s South End, the lone boy among five sisters, in a home where politics and charity were two major pillars.

His father, Thomas, an attorney, had a big influence in shaping Donovan’s view of practicing law. He would take any case that came in off the street, Donovan said.

“He’d get paid in cords of wood. He got paid in vegetables,” Donovan said. “He had a very generous heart and he tried to help people, and that made a real impression on me.”

According to the candidate’s mother, Johannah “Joey” Leddy Donovan, a state representative for Burlington, her son had “really an all-American type of childhood.” She also grew up in a highly political family. Her brother is former state Sen. Jim Leddy, and her father was Bernard Leddy, who ran for governor in 1958, losing to Robert Stafford by 700 votes. A park in Burlington is named after him.

As a child, TJ Donovan played Little League baseball. He hung out with a small, close group, some members of which remain friends to this day, his mother said. His cousins, who grew up down the street, were “like brothers,” she said.

He was “always very competitive,” she said. “I think that could have been driven by his five sisters.”

TJ Donovan left Vermont to go to Merrimack College in Massachusetts for his undergraduate studies.

Joey Donovan said she first noticed her son’s political interest developing when he did an internship at a housing organization in an old industrial town near his college.

“I think he had his eyes open to the challenges that some people experienced when he worked there,” she said.

TJ Donovan went on to study law at Suffolk University in Boston. After graduating, he moved to Philadelphia, where he worked in a prosecutor’s office. The experience was formative, he said.

From a practical standpoint, it was a crash course on how to be a prosecutor.

“You’re on your feet every single day in court and doing lots of cases, and pretty serious cases,” he said.

His tenure there was also significant as he formed the foundation for his views on criminal justice policy. In the populous city’s justice system, the imbalances were stark, he said.

“I definitely saw firsthand some of the inequities of the system that I see here too,” Donovan said.

When Donovan arrived in Philadelphia, another future Vermont prosecutor was already working in the courts there as a defense lawyer: Scott Williams, now the Washington County state’s attorney.

At first, Williams recalled, Donovan struck him as “a pretty uptight dude.”

Eventually, Williams started hearing Donovan earning a reputation for doing the “honorable thing,” settling or dropping a case at the right time, Williams recalled.

Later, when they were both back in Vermont and Donovan was state’s attorney in Chittenden County, Williams remembers being impressed as a veteran defense attorney by Donovan’s programs. The criminal justice system, he said, has needed prosecutors “to come around to at least being able to acknowledge the existence of gray in the world.”

When Donovan returned to Vermont from Philadelphia, he continued in the public sector, working as a deputy state’s attorney in Chittenden County under Bob Simpson.

Bob Wolford, the coordinator of criminal justice programs at Howard Center, started working with Judge James Crucitti on the idea of starting a drug court in Chittenden County in 2002, separating those cases from the rest to focus on rehabilitation. He met Donovan as the project developed. Donovan, then a deputy, was the state’s attorney assigned to the drug court.

“He very quickly got on board with what we were doing,” Wolford recalled.

By the time several years later that Donovan had dinner with the drug court team at the Lincoln Inn in Essex Junction, Wolford recalled, Donovan had firmly established an integrated view of criminal justice and health services.

“It was really clear that he began to identify (drug addiction) as both a public safety and public health issue,” Wolford said.

Before Donovan ran for state’s attorney, he spent several years working in private practice at the Burlington firm Jarvis and Kaplan.

Paul D. Jarvis described Donovan simply as a “very good lawyer.” While at the firm, Donovan worked on a combination of civil and criminal cases and was “a really good advocate for his clients,” Jarvis said.

Jarvis said that when Donovan came on board, he already had a good sense for what a case was worth — when to continue to fight and when to make a deal. By the time he left, he’d honed that skill, Jarvis said.

In 2006, Donovan was elected Chittenden County state’s attorney, defeating then-deputy John St. Francis with 70 percent of the vote. He then kept St. Francis on as part of his team.

Jarvis said Donovan’s breadth of experience within the field of law is part of what made him successful in office.

“He’s just not afraid to give people a break when they need a break, and I think that’s very, very important and very much to his credit,” Jarvis said. “He also will fight tooth and nail for crimes that need serious punishment.”

AS STATE’S ATTORNEY

During Donovan’s 10 years as state’s attorney, he has spearheaded a number of initiatives to change the criminal justice system in Chittenden County, carving out a statewide reputation for his progressive approach.

“I think anybody who works in the criminal justice system would have to be blind not to see the failure of the system,” Donovan said.

He said prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys were seeing the same issues, and often the same defendants, in court time and time again because of a variety of factors — often addiction and mental illness.

In attempting to address those problems, Donovan hatched a pilot program in 2010 called the Rapid Intervention Community Court, or RICC, that has become his hallmark. The initiative aims to connect defendants with treatment, offering them an opportunity to avoid having a criminal charge on their record.

Donovan’s local roots meant that some of the faces in the courtroom were familiar to him.

“I went to public school. I know a lot of these folks. They’re good people,” Donovan said. “A lot of them just deserve an opportunity.”

Donovan knows the importance of such opportunity firsthand. At age 18, he was arrested after a fight on Church Street. He went through the court system and received a deferred sentence, which allowed the incident to be expunged from his record.

“I was a beneficiary of a second chance,” Donovan said. “That experience has never left me.”

Donovan also said he, like many others in Vermont, has personal connections to addiction.

“I know people who struggle with it. They’re good people,” Donovan said. “I believe that everybody can be healthy and lead a productive life.”

“People are better than their worst moments,” Donovan said.

RICC was so widely regarded as successful in Chittenden County that it served as the blueprint for a law, passed by the Legislature in 2014, that intended to replicate the program in Vermont’s 13 other counties.

 

Donovan further developed his progressive reputation through his efforts to revise the driver’s license suspension system, which he and others have labeled “a poverty trap.”

For many people, paying traffic fines was a prohibitive expense. Unpaid fines lead to license suspension. Getting caught driving with a suspended license leads to more traffic tickets. Five unpaid civil tickets becomes a criminal offense.

Donovan was a key player in organizing a driver’s license restoration day in March 2015 when people could pay off old traffic tickets for $20 apiece. The event drew more than 1,000 people from the five participating counties.

“What that said to me was that people, if given an opportunity, they want to do the right thing,” Donovan said.

That program then became the foundation for a statewide effort to address failings in the driver’s license suspension system. Lawmakers passed a bill this year.

BUILDING A POLITICAL PROFILE

Former Burlington Police Chief Mike Schirling, now of BTV Ignite, took over leadership of the city Police Department in 2008 — two years after Donovan became state’s attorney.

There were “sometimes disagreements and differences of opinions” between the police and the chief prosecutor, Schirling said. But, he said, there was also a collaborative relationship as the two parties worked together to try to address systemic issues in the criminal justice system.

Initially, according to Schirling, Donovan did not always take a strong collaborative approach with traditional law enforcement organizations.

“He came in with a pretty good idea of what he wanted to do early on and changing the way business was done,” Schirling said.

But, Schirling said, that criticism “has evaporated” as Donovan grew into the job.

Schirling praised Donovan, saying he has an ability to balance a toughness toward high-level crime with substantive efforts to reform responses to low-level offenses.

“He’s shown a willingness to take significant intractable high-level offenders and hold them accountable, and simultaneously he has been willing to be creative and innovative around the lower-level issues,” Schirling said.

Schirling said Donovan recognized there was a political, public element of the state’s attorney job.

“That’s a component of the job that he embraced in a meaningful way,” Schirling said.

Wolford, who worked with Donovan in developing the Chittenden County drug court, said the chief prosecutor builds relationships even with defendants. Donovan often comes to a weekly breakfast Wolford hosts for people involved with the criminal justice system, Wolford said.

Donovan has a natural flair for the political, evident in his manner as he moves through the Costello Courthouse, Wolford said. He remembers telling Donovan: “Watching you is like watching your uncle,” former state Sen. Jim Leddy.

But Wolford does not see Donovan’s adeptness in politics as undermining his sincerity.

“He’s politically savvy in, in my perspective, the positive way,” Wolford said. “What I see him doing is really looking for ways to improve the lives of Vermonters.”

As to the observation some have made that Donovan has a fondness for the spotlight, the candidate responded that the state’s attorney job comes with an obligation to keep the public informed. “And I don’t shy away from that,” he said.

“I’m doing a job the way I think it should be done,” Donovan said.

Donovan’s political ambition became evident in 2012, when he mounted a Democratic primary challenge against incumbent Attorney General William Sorrell. Donovan lost by only 714 votes, almost the same margin as his grandfather’s loss to Stafford more than 50 years ago.

The race pitted two powerhouses in the Vermont justice system and two longtime Burlington political families.

Donovan said he decided to run because he “thought it was time for a change.” He was disappointed by the outcome, but, he said, many of the issues that came up during the campaign were acted upon in subsequent legislative sessions.

“I was proud of the primary, not only the campaign I ran but the campaign that Attorney General Sorrell ran,” Donovan said.

Sorrell said Friday that the 2012 primary was “a tough, hard-fought race.”

“I prevailed and have been pleased to serve that term and one more,” Sorrell said.

Sorrell said his decision not to seek another term in 2016 was based on his personal plans after 19 years in office.

“My choosing not to run for re-election is consistent with the planning I’ve had for any number of years,” Sorrell said.

Donovan and Sorrell have collaborated at times on cases and have what Sorrell characterized as “a good, productive working relationship.”

Sorrell hasn’t weighed in on the 2016 race, though. “I’m leaving it to the voters to decide who should be the next attorney general,” he said.

ATTORNEY GENERAL?

If elected, Donovan would head an office with a much broader range of responsibilities than his current station. Criminal justice is just one element on the chief law enforcement officer’s docket.

Under Sorrell’s current leadership, the attorney general’s office comprises about 100 attorneys who touch on virtually every aspect of state government. The office has ranged from working at the federal level in defense of the state’s law on labeling of genetically modified organisms to providing basic consumer protection. Only half a dozen attorneys are dedicated to criminal justice, Sorrell said.

Donovan has plans to establish an office dedicated to providing support to small businesses on state rules and regulations.

“The best way to enforce the law is to give people resources to comply with it,” Donovan said.

His top consumer protection issue, he said, is to prevent scams and fraud against vulnerable Vermonters, particularly the elderly. He wants to build up partnerships with nongovernmental entities, like AARP, and work with companies like Western Union to combat scams.

“I think there’s a lot of victims out there that don’t report,” Donovan said. “My sense is a lot of these folks are being taken advantage of by people that they know, by family members.”

Civil rights issues would also be a priority for Donovan, who said he believes the attorney general should play a key role in ensuring Vermonters feel protected regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation.

But Donovan said he would also continue to carry the banner of criminal justice reform.

One of Donovan’s top priorities would be combating the heroin epidemic — an effort he believes requires an integrated approach involving both public health and public safety.

If elected, he will be in charge of the statewide pretrial services program that was based on RICC, which was implemented a year ago but has had a rocky start. (The program was recently moved from the Department of Corrections to the attorney general’s office, where it is in the same division as the existing restorative justice program.)

Plenty of Donovan’s fans have faith in his ability to take on the attorney general’s office. He has a clear financial lead over Bucknam, his opponent. As of his Oct. 1 campaign finance report, he had raised more than $390,000 — more than six times the $57,000 Bucknam reported.

Bennington County State’s Attorney Erica Marthage, who was elected the same year as Donovan, said she looks forward to working with him should he win.

She said she and her colleagues in Bennington County have had difficulties getting the pretrial services system up and running, and she hopes consulting Donovan can help. Though, she noted, the justice system in Vermont’s less populous counties have fewer resources.

“The biggest challenge is going to be grappling with the idea that all counties in Vermont are not like Chittenden County,” Marthage said.

Defender General Matt Valerio said Donovan has set an example as a “remarkably progressive” prosecutor.

“The magic of what TJ’s done over the years is he’s picked and chosen some of those more progressive ideas and implemented them in Chittenden County and then called for other prosecutors to do the same thing,” Valerio said.

Valerio noted that Donovan is sometimes criticized as politically ambitious. But Valerio said his record stands up.

“It’s very hard to argue with what’s gone on on the street with him, even if he is looking for the next election and wants the spotlight,” Valerio said.

Donovan could be faced with some fresh challenges, Valerio said. Getting pretrial services up and running uniformly across the state’s 14 counties could be difficult, for instance.

But Valerio, like many others, is reserving judgment.

“I never count TJ out,” Valerio said.

Original article