In a radio debate that reflected the increasingly contentious tone of the Democratic primary for attorney general, TJ Donovan on Monday suggested that seven-term incumbent William Sorrell deserves at least some of the blame for the state’s skyrocketing corrections costs and prescription drug abuse problem.
From long waiting lists at drug rehabilitation clinics to recidivism rates that have seen one in two inmates fall back into the criminal justice system, the second-term Chittenden County state’s attorney said, ineffective leadership from Vermont’s top law enforcement officer has stunted the growth of more effective reforms.
“Vermont among New England states jumped from fifth to second in rates of incarceration, yet do we feel safer?” Donovan said during a debate moderated by Mark Johnson of WDEV. “We have a recidivism rate between 52 percent and 43 percent. Name a business or state agency, for that matter, that fails five out of 10 times and stays in business.”
The attacks on Sorrell’s record come as the 38-year-old challenger looks to chip into what had been a comfortable lead in the last public poll, conducted in May.
Sorrell, who will look to keep his job in the Aug. 28 primary, remained calm under fire Monday, steadfastly defending a 15-year record that he said has included important victories for the Vermonters he represents.
Asked by Johnson what makes him the right candidate for the job, he said experience.
“That’s the biggest difference. I have it and my opponent doesn’t,” Sorrell said.
Citing the successful enforcement of environmental and consumer protection laws that has “brought hundreds of millions of dollars into the state,” Sorrell said that while Donovan peddles in promises, he’s selling results.
“I haven’t had to spend $10,000 on a North Carolina polling operation to find out what issues are important to Vermonters,” Sorrell said, in a jab at a public-opinion poll conducted recently by the Donovan campaign. “It’s a cleaner environment, it’s to be protected (from) scam artists and to be protected in their homes from burglars and robbers. I’ve been here doing that for 15 years.”
From a policy perspective, the candidates often differ only subtly on some of the issues likely to be of importance to the 30,000 to 40,000 voters expected to turn out later this month.
Both support the use of Tasers by police, for example. However, Donovan favors a single, statewide use-of-force policy to govern all departments, whereas Sorrell said municipalities should be able to develop protocols independently.
Both men support an approach to drug abuse that favors treatment and rehabilitation for addicts over jail sentences. Neither candidate Monday said he thinks Vermont needs tighter restrictions on gun ownership, recent shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin notwithstanding. And both say the attorney general should use the office as a platform to advocate vociferously in the Legislature on behalf of policies they believe will improve public health and safety.
Donovan, however, said Sorrell hasn’t always been an effective executor of the office’s powers. One of his chief criticisms centered on vast differences in prosecutorial discretion across county lines.
“We have 14 different criminal justice systems in 14 different counties. ... The only person who has statewide jurisdiction is the attorney general,” Donovan said. “We need a consistent, uniform approach across the state to develop best practices.”
The “rapid intervention” program implemented under his watch in Chittenden County, according to Donovan, has diverted more than 700 offenders from the criminal justice system. As attorney general, he said, he’ll make sure that courts in every county adopt the same kind of community-based, treatment-minded model.
Donovan said the state can’t combat what he said is a worsening narcotics problem without new investments in transitional housing and increased capacity at methadone clinics and other drug treatment facilities.
“After 15 years, why do we have a waiting list (at methadone clinics) of 500 people?” Donovan said. “This didn’t happen overnight. This didn’t happen in the last three months. Bill Sorrell, with all due respect, has been in this position for 15 years. We need treatment. Why don’t we have more?”
Sorrell said the attorney general’s office doesn’t hold the purse strings that would have to be loosened to realize the sorts of reforms that Donovan envisions.
“From my opponent I hear invest, invest, invest,” Sorrell said. “The question is, if we’re going to spend more money on the criminal justice system, what are the wise things to do with those investments? And it’s up to the governor and the legislative branch to make those decisions.”
Both candidates offered critiques of specific legislative initiatives proposed by the other. Donovan took aim at the 1-cent-per-ounce soda tax that Sorrell asked legislators to adopt in 2011. Sorrell had proposed using revenue from the tax to support programs that, according to Sorrell, would have curbed obesity rates by subsidizing the cost of nutritious food for poor people.
“Of course everyone is against obesity,” Donovan said. “But the way to do it is not to propose a tax on working-class Vermonters.”
Sorrell defended the plan, which never gained traction in Montpelier.
“You can’t just (propose) things that cost money. It’s irresponsible not to have revenue sources,” Sorrell said. “That’s leadership. That’s proactive engagement to make proposals to deal with what is rapidly taking over tobacco as the greatest public health threat.”
Sorrell, meanwhile, targeted Donovan’s pledge to work with lawmakers to craft food labeling legislation that would let consumers know whether products contain genetically modified ingredients.
Legislation to that effect was tabled in Montpelier earlier this year despite broad support among lawmakers, in part because of warnings from Sorrell’s office that the law would be met with a costly, and likely unwinnable, legal challenge.
Donovan has chided Sorrell for not persuading the Legislature to revise or reject laws that were later overthrown in court, including statutes dealing with campaign finance, prescription data mining and Vermont Yankee.
Nonetheless, he said he thinks he could help the Legislature craft GMO labeling legislation that would pass constitutional muster, despite conventional legal thinking to the contrary.
“I think we’re a little gun-shy after all our high-profile losses. We’ve lost three big ones in a row,” Donovan said. “Every parent has a right to know what they’re putting in their kids’ bellies.”
Sorrell said it’s curious that Donovan has criticized him for not persuading the Legislature to squelch constitutionally shaky laws, yet now proposes one himself.
“I agree as a consumer I would love to see what’s in the products I buy. But this suggestion we can enact a law that has any real teeth or meaning and not invite a lawsuit is wishful thinking.”
The candidates departed the radio station’s Waterbury studio Monday to resume their hectic campaign schedules.
They debate again Wednesday at 5 p.m. in Burlington City Hall.
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