Through the Eyes of Janssen Willhoit

janssenSAINT JOHNSBURY - Family man, ex-felon, state representative, and public defender aren’t terms that would normally be used collectively to describe someone—until you meet Caledonia County representative Janssen Willhoit.

 

To start his day, Willhoit’s adopted son Jack usually clamors into his room and gets him on his feet every morning. “Even this morning, even if I’m up, I’ll just lay there because it’s fun to hear.” That may be one of the only constants in Willhoit’s day, because anything can happen between the 35 miles that separates the state house in Montpelier and his law office in St. Johnsbury.

A few years ago, his routine was completely different, as he was serving a ten year sentence for bilking his clients out of just under $100,000. He was sentenced to ten years in prison, but after receiving a pardon from the governor of Kentucky, he used his five and a half years of first-hand prison experience, and led a charge to reform prisons in the state. "It's the whople reason I practice law now", he adds.

While acting as an advocate for incarcerated offenders, Willhoit learned about Vermont from some inmates who were transferred there from the Green Mountain State.  "One day one of them said 'Jannsen, it's great that you're here, but why can't we have a real attourney like the Vermonters?' I just thought he was blowing smoke, but that's when I did my own research and found that there is ma Defender General in Vermont and a Prisoner's Rights Office."

While his 'heart remains' with the prisoner's rights work, he sees his current role as a defense attourney as an equally important job.
"In many ways, the best way I can help an offender out is to help them out on the front end, so if there's a way or a meansthat there is a way they don't have to experience prison, I'll obviously do that," he said.

In addition to the defense work at his law office in Saint Johnsbury, when the legislature is not in session Willhoit also serves on the Vermont Supreme court bar and the Federal District Court of Vermont. “It stays busy, but it’s also quite rewarding to do as well," he says, sitting with his arms folded across his royal blue University of Kentucky-embroidered sweater.

When in legislative session, Willhoit represents St. Johnsbury with a Caledonia County seat. When asked what a typical day looks like for him, he simply responded “Even that is not as true-to-form as you might think,” noting how anything can happen when in the state house. From Fish and Wildlife committee meetings (which he is a member of) to residents texting him about issues at home, he is constantly adapting to what is going on around him.

"When I ran [for office], I ran on the platform that I didn’t have an agenda. My town's agenda was my agenda."

While away from his home state, Willhoit found it easy to adapt to the Vermont way of life. "In 2009 when I came to visit Vermont Law School, I literalyl felt like I was driving into my hometown [in Kentucky]. Its small, rural--there's so many similaraties," he said. "I feel quite connected to my community in that sense."

With his daily agenda oft overstuffed, his "free time" goes right back to his children, be it sports and other extracirricular activities. "My time is committed to going to all those games."

While his plate is full year round, Willhoit says he loves what he does, and the only thing that could take him away from his current jobs would be prisoners rights work. "I still do have that particular heart from personal experience and hearing from folks when they do get in jail to do the prisoner rights work," he said with a small smirk racing across his face. "I still feel like that's what I'm suppossed to do."

Until that opportunity comes, if it comes, Willhoit says he will stand firm as an advocate for the people, as a lawyer, legislator and leader.

 

 

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