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BETHLEHEM — Incumbent Town Justice Ryan T. Donovan, who is running unopposed and seeking re-election, said that he sees himself as a judge who is compassionate yet firm when hearing cases that come across his court and making decisions.
“I believe that life is hard for people and that people are trying to get through various life experiences, so it’s important for me to remember where they come from and what situation brought them to court,” Donovan said. “I’m not insensitive to their socioeconomic or family situation too. But I will also be firm when I have to be because I took an oath to enforce the law.”
Born and raised in Bethlehem, Donovan acknowledged how other people may not be as fortunate as he is, since he said he grew up in a supportive family in a great town, and was able to gain sheer experience in law and politics — which all complemented his humble nature.
He graduated from Bethlehem High School in 1994, having since been inducted in its Hall of Fame recently, and went off to SUNY Oswego to be a history teacher. Around that time, he began getting involved with several political campaigns. In 1996, he traveled to London to be an intern at the House of Commons, then returned that fall to work on the Clinton-Gore campaign, and ended up as a White House intern in the West Wing in 1997.
He said this period was when he began looking towards law, and applied and enrolled at Albany Law School in fall 1998. He added that he returned to Bethlehem then because he enjoyed studying there and that “because my parents, who live right around the corner, gave me a free place to stay.” He has since become an adjunct professor of law there since 2011.
He has also made partner at the Albany law firm, Harris, Conway & Donovan, PLLC, where he specializes in commercial litigation, personal injury, alcohol beverage litigation, civil litigation, and trial practice. Now living in Delmar with his wife and three children, he said he enjoys juggling all those responsibilities.
He said that he feels honored to run unopposed and he has appreciated the support from across party lines throughout Bethlehem. Having assumed office since June 2006, he added that he wanted to run again because he feels there is still a lot of work to do.
“It is a challenging job and I deal with all walks of life, and have a chance to make an impact on their lives, and I enjoy that part of law,” he said. “And I’m not tired of it yet.”
When asked if certain types of cases specifically affected him, he said, “The heroin cases have hit me personally, it’s so sad. I’ve seen addiction rip families apart and kill people and damage property. I’ve seen horrible things happen.”
Feeling that the town court should do more to address heroin addiction, Donovan developed a treatment court, which serves as a “special probation program,” over a year ago that is held in the town court.
“Every month, a defendant, their attorney and a probation officer come here to court and meet with me, so I know what they’re doing for treatment, if they’ve tested positive, to keep them on task and hold them accountable,” he said. Such a program does not exist in any other town court in the whole state and holding the addicts accountable shows that he and the town court care about their well-being, according to him.
“It’s easy to say go to jail but if you roll your sleeves up and dig in and show them ways to be successful, and have them follow that path and reach success, that’s the reason I’m still here,” he added. “Our justice system should be like this and not so punitive. A good court needs to have a soul that really wants to help.”
While he said that there are around seven or eight defendants enrolled in his treatment court, about the same number of enrolled defendants have died from overdoses since it began, “and that struck me. How can we fix this problem if we’re doing the same thing like before this treatment court started? We have to approach it from a different angle.”
He hopes to expand it by having more defendants enrolled into the treatment court. He said that if a defendant actively discusses their progress, set monthly goals, and stays clean after a whole year, “their charges get vacated, and they have a chance and have a non-criminal disposition, and take a positive step in their life. That’s the best part of this job.”
He said that the road to recovery is not easy though and that relapse is part of that. “You can’t expect people to say, ‘Ok, I’m better.’ That’s just not how it works. Rehabilitation is a big part of the criminal justice system and I try to use it whenever possible. It’s my belief that we’re here to help fix it and not let it go by. Otherwise, it’s like why am I here?”
This connects back to how he’s said that as a judge, he wants to understand what each defendant’s situation and background are, which led them to becoming addicted. “I didn’t have the challenges that a lot of people before me face,” he said, bringing up his loving, supportive family and successful professional background. “I want to be sensitive to that and I think it’s important for a judge to not say, ‘If I wouldn’t do that, you shouldn’t do that.’ That’s not a healthy attitude for a judge — they should enforce the law and understand their audience, where they came from and take that into account. Because life is really hard for people and I’ve been really fortunate, of which I’m very aware and grateful.”
Moving forward, Donovan said he wants to continue making the town court more efficient and he recognizes that the justice system is a process, although acknowledging that many people are intimidated by it.
“The court isn’t here to ruin people’s lives, we’re hopefully here to get them back on track in life,” he concluded. “And you can’t be an arrogant judge. If you always think you’re right, you won’t learn and grow. I always strive to do my best to apply logic, reason and compassion into the law. I’m always wanting to get better.”