Attorney general candidate Janssen Willhoit proposes criminal justice reforms

Janssen Willhoit joined the Legislature only four years ago, but now the St. Johnsbury representative has given up his seat to run for attorney general following a special GOP nominating process in late August.

Willhoit has an unconventional story. He’s an ex-convict who did five years in prison for stealing money from investors years ago. But he says he’s learned many lessons in the process, and he has an inside perspective of the justice system that would help him succeed as the state’s top law enforcement official.

Non-violent prisoners and bail costs

One thing he would like to see changed is to have fewer people experience our prison system for the wrong reasons. The Vera Institute of Justice estimates that the average annual incarceration cost nationwide is more than $31,000 per inmate.

photo courtesy of Janssen Willhiy

COURTROOM VETERAN: Janssen Willhoit is familiar with the courtroom, both as a lawyer and a convict. He says all his experiences have led him to conclude many reforms are needed.

Willhoit says one of the most common occurrences that lands low-level offenders in jail is the inability to make bail. When the issue of high bail costs was brought to incumbent Attorney General TJ Donovan, he agreed to set bail costs for misdemeanor and non-violent crimes at just $200.

Willhoit says $200 seems like a reasonable deal because most people can afford it, but any person who can’t may expect to spend up to several months behind bars waiting for the court system to process the case. As a result, he pledges that, if elected, he will advocate for no bail for nonviolent and misdemeanor crimes.

Non-violent felons

In addition to keeping those guilty of misdemeanors out of jail, he would like to keep all nonviolent felons out. He explained that the distinctions between misdemeanor versus felony possession of drugs are largely arbitrary determinations based on poor and outdated science.

“We have to really take a hard look at how we charge, and what our charges are when it comes to purely a possession of use-levels of drugs,” he told True North. “All of our numbers  — what we consider the threshold of a misdemeanor possession versus a felony possession — are all levels based on unfortunately bogus science.”

Willhoit said this results in even more nonviolent people sitting in jail on taxpayer dollars. He added that the state is sending mixed messages now that Donovan announced Vermont is suing Purdue Pharma for its connection with opiates. He said it’s being implied that these drug users are victims, and on the other hand the state is still treating them like criminals.


One issue that has plagued the AG’s office in recent years has been its participation in a debacle known as AG’s United for Clean Power. Under former Attorney General William Sorrell, this group of about 17 attorneys general conspired to sue Exxon Mobil for allegedly misleading the public on global warming. Yet Sorrell sought to hide these activities from the public.

Willhoit said there will be a more transparent office under his leadership. “There still appears to be a culture of ‘say no first’ with any request,” Willhoit said. “We just don’t do it.”

GOP support

Willhoit admits he has clashed with some GOP colleagues on the issue of criminal justice reform. He said that makes him feel all the more honored that the party chose him to run for Donovan’s seat, which it did in late August in a special nomination session. He also said the Republican Party has been gracious toward his past transgressions, even after newspapers had run a story on his incarceration.

“I was kind of concerned and so I went to all the doors at the time –183 houses that had my signs out. I went to those houses to talk to them and see what happens. Not only did no one take down my signs, but they were mad because they were like, ‘We know you, Janssen. We talked about this.'”

His reform-minded message may be getting through to people across the state.

Jace Laquerre, an undergraduate student at the University of Vermont, and an active member of Turning Point USA on campus, says he supports the Republican candidate.

“Janssen has done more for criminal justice reform and the civil rights and liberties of Vermonters than perhaps anyone in the state,” he told True North in an email. “As a public defender and state representative he has fought against the failed war on drugs, mandatory minimums, and … has fought to give parents the right to determine where their children could go to school.”

He continued, “He believes this state’s judiciary should deliver blind justice to everyone in accordance with the law, but he also believes the law needs to be practiced with compassion and with the belief in second chances.”

Michael Bielawski is a reporter for True North Reports. Send him news tips at and follow him on Twitter @TrueNorthMikeB.

Image courtesy of Janssen Willhoit

3 thoughts on “Attorney general candidate Janssen Willhoit proposes criminal justice reforms

  1. I believe everyone needs should get a second chance, not a third, fourth, fifth chance
    but a second chance…….looks like Janssen Willhoit has seen the light good for him
    maybe he can reform our inept system.

    I have seen the criminal revolving door and how it works, pretty shameful. Some will never
    learn from its only petty theft, drugs they need a break, no moral values and they will never
    learn or care, nope they need incarceration !!

    The cost of prisons more than $31,000 per inmate, what a crock get ride of the gyms, Cable
    TV and all the other feel-good items. Vermont has been turning its Criminals to out of state
    facilities to save money ( good) but then you have those stating it’s cruel to ship them out of
    state… ” If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime ” ……. Oh so true !!

    Our current Attorney General TJ Donovan is just another ” look at me” AG trying to save
    the world but not the state. If Liberal DemocRATs want something passed TJ will follow
    suit from Legalized Pot, Shoot up Centers ( ruining ) the state, what a scam artist anything
    for a vote.

    Good Luck Janssen Willhoit.

  2. Perhaps there is a middle ground? We swing from all to nothing on so many things. Pot is the other topic we’ve made a complete 180.

    Many times some carrot and stick guidance gets us on the correct path, I know it worked for me in my youth.

    How about a community service? Even in school you might be grounded by your parents. Drug abuse is a very serious issue in our state, legal, illegal, punished, unpunished, it still ruins people, destroys families and has lead us to be the leading state in the nation for babies born addicted to heroin and crack. We reap what we sow.

    We can probably agree the war on drugs doesn’t work well for anyone, so change is long overdue.

    I suspect Janssen will be fair and reasonable, the fact he’s looking for transparency tells the whole story. Working together we can perhaps find something that works better for everyone.

  3. If a ‘non-violent’ felon breaks into my home to steal goods I paid for in order to support their ‘non-violent’ drug habit, I can assure you there will be violence. I’ll be the one delivering it. I refuse to be a victim, and don’t really care what a ‘wonderful boy little Johnny was’.

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