Campaign Countdown: Vermont attorney general

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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) Democratic Attorney General T.J. Donovan is asking voters for a second term. His Republican opponent, Jannsen Willhoit, agrees with much of his platform but says there are some areas where Donovan could do better. Our Neal Goswami spoke with both about their race.

"I'm asking for a second term to continue the work we started these past two years," Donovan said.

Donovan says he's joined other attorneys general around the country to hold corporations accountable and push back on some policies coming from Washington.

"I'm comfortable with the lawsuits we've joined. I'm comfortable with pushing back against Washington. Look, when the federal government steps back, Vermont's going to step up and protect Vermonters," Donovan said.

Republican challenger Jannsen Willhoit may seem like an unlikely candidate. He's a two-term House member but also a former convict, since pardoned in Tennessee for bilking financial clients. Willhoit served his full prison sentence and says he was raped by guards in jail. He's since become an attorney and public defender and is committed to criminal justice reform.

"I stand behind the record that I have in the Legislature the last four years. And to be frank, I was even more progressive than he on many issues," Willhoit said.

Willhoit says he wants Vermont to focus on rehabilitating offenders rather than first focusing on punishment.

"That simply doesn't work. We've seen that with the increase of our prison population and also the disparities on who we're incarcerating, be it socioeconomic, be it by race or gender," Willhoit said.

Donovan says he's committed to criminal justice reform, too. He notes the state spends more on jails than higher ed.

"We shouldn't be investing in jails," Donovan said. "We should be investing in people of this state, making sure we have robust mental health and substance abuse treatment throughout the state, investing in prevention, investing in health care. That's the best form of public safety."

Willhoit says he's disappointed Donovan didn't support his effort to eliminate bail for low-level, misdemeanor offenses. Donovan's office pushed for $200 for those offenses.

"The reality is for people that are in the throes of addiction, that nominal keeps them held," Willhoit said.

Donovan says he supports bail reform but the law requires some form of bail.

"But we wanted to pass a law that would stand up in the court of law because you gotta make progress. The fact of the matter is the Constitution talks about bailable offenses. Our interpretation is you need some bail," Donovan said.

Both men oppose sending Vermont prisoners out of state. Donovan says he will push for more transitional housing to free up space in Vermont's prisons.