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‘A system that dramatically needs reform’: In 2nd year, Utah County Attorney wants to rethink criminal justice

David Leavitt loses sleep at night when he thinks about how many jury trials in Utah County haven’t taken place because those accused of crimes have instead accepted plea bargains.

This bothers the Utah County Attorney because accepting a plea bargain, which usually involves a reduced sentence if a defendant waives their right to a jury trial and admits guilt, means a prosecutor’s accusations never have to be proven, and a defendant is never sentenced by a trial of their peers — as intended by the U.S. Constitution.

Leavitt spends hours looking at his ceiling wondering how many thousands of people in Utah County have gone to jail and had charges placed on their records without ever being proven guilty by a jury.

“It weighs on me,” Leavitt said. “You affect someone’s life and trajectory forever.”

Leavitt entered office in 2019 after running with one goal in mind: to reform the criminal justice system in Utah County, unapologetically, and hopefully create a model for the rest of the state and country. Now, at the beginning of his second year as the county’s top prosecutor, Leavitt said he is more determined than ever to change hearts, minds and give power back to everyday citizens.

“We have a system that dramatically needs reform,” said Leavitt.

‘We don’t protect people like we should’

Leavitt believes if you ask most people what the purpose of court system is, they will respond that it exists to keep people safe from harm. But the main purpose of a court system, Leavitt said, is to protect from government tyranny or abuse of power.

The government does not have the ability to find someone guilty of a crime, Leavitt said. This power, instead, is retained by the people through jury trials, where evidence is weighed and a verdict is reached.

But with plea bargains becoming increasingly popular, most charges are never heard by a jury. In fact, plea bargains are reached in 99% of criminal cases in the county, according to Leavitt.

“Every time we do a plea bargain, we take away the jury’s right to decide ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent,’” he said.

As a result, prosecutors in the U.S., and therefore the government as a whole, have what Leavitt considers a dangerous amount of power. They can investigate and charge whoever they want, and very rarely do they have to prove those charges.

“That’s what’s wrong with our criminal justice system,” he said.

Leavitt changed the policy in his office so that plea bargains cannot be pursued unless the majority of a team of three prosecutors agrees to it. By doing so, Leavitt said he hopes more cases will be taken to trial where a jury can make a judgement.

Another concern is that the majority of cases tried in the county involve nonviolent offenders, usually those who face — and plead guilty — to drug possession charges.

As a result, roughly 80% of people in Utah County Jail at a given moment are nonviolent offenders, said Leavitt. And without adequate county or state resources to assist with drug addiction or otherwise prevent recidivism, people spiral downward and are perpetually caught up in the “revolving door” of the criminal justice system.

“We have too many nonviolent people in jail,” Leavitt said. “We don’t protect people like we should. We hurt more people than we should.”

Focusing on the

right crimes

As the county’s top prosecutor, Leavitt wants to focus less on drug offenses and instead pursue higher-level crimes, including white-collar crimes like securities fraud and embezzlement.

In Utah County, it is easier to get away with stealing $10,000 through a white-collar scheme than it is to get away with stealing a candy bar from a grocery store, said Leavitt.

“We don’t investigate the right kind of crimes,” he said. “White-collar crime devastates people.”

This is primarily due to the fact that his office and local police departments lack the resources to investigate complex, elaborate financial crimes. The attorney’s office has five investigators on staff and Leavitt said he hopes to add five more so the office can better assist local police departments with white-collar investigations.

If you want to catch bigger fish, you need to use bigger hooks, he said.

Leavitt doesn’t want his approach to criminal justice to be considered soft on crime. He said he still plans on prosecuting violent offenders and doing everything he can to keep dangerous people away from the public.

But “those are the easy cases,” Leavitt said. The difficult ones are those where someone needs help, with drug addiction, for example, and the system doesn’t know how to help them.

‘Redemptive justice’

After decades of observing and working in the criminal justice system, both as a defense and prosecuting attorney, Leavitt said he has learned the value of compassion.

He refers to William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” which states that mercy “blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

Shakespeare was right, Leavitt said.

One of Leavitt’s goals for his second year in office is to focus on “redemptive justice” and encourage Utah County residents to show compassion to criminals, especially nonviolent ones, and try to help them change their life’s direction.

The system can “beat you into” being a productive citizen, but it is done far more effectively through connections to people and the community, said Leavitt.

And the county attorney is leading by example. Twenty years ago, when he was serving as Juab County Attorney, Leavitt prosecuted a man who found himself returning to a life of crime and continually being placed on parole.

Today, that same man works as a handyman at Leavitt’s house. Leavitt said the most satisfying day of his life was when this man showed him the certificate he received for getting off of parole.

“But you have to be willing to get burned,” Leavitt said, noting that working with people struggling to get their lives together is never an easy task.

Leavitt said he hopes to run for a second term when his first one ends. Regardless of whether he is elected or voters choose someone else, he said he hopes to have set an example for how criminal justice in the U.S. should look and operate.

“And I can’t think of a better place than Utah County to do (that),” he said.

“Every time we do a plea bargain, we take away the jury’s right to decide ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent.’”— David Leavitt, Utah County Attorney

Hospitals cut opioid prescriptions by double digits 2 years after Utah County launches Use Only as Directed campaign

Utah County’s Use Only as Directed campaign is seeing good results.

Intermountain Healthcare and MountainStar Healthcare have each seen double digit decreases in the percentage of opioids prescribed at their hospitals, according to the organizations.

“We think there has been success,” said Lisa Nichols, the assistant vice president of community health for Intermountain Healthcare. “There is still a lot to be done, and we have to continue to monitor it.”

The Use Only as Directed campaign has been running at the statewide level for several years. In 2018, Utah County’s Intermountain Healthcare and MountainStar Healthcare hospitals banded together to implement a localized version of the Use Only as Directed campaign with the goals of decreasing the number of opioids prescribed to patients and educating the public about opioid addiction.

The hospitals have posted messages with questions patients should ask their doctors and have taken several measures to reduce opioid prescriptions.

Utah had a rate of 15.5 drug opioid deaths per 100,000 people in 2017, compared to a national rate of 14.6, according to information from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. That same year, Utah providers wrote 63.8 opioid prescriptions for every 100 persons, compared to the national average of 58.7 prescriptions.

A physical dependence on opioids can happen in a week, according to materials presented at the countywide Use Only as Directed launch in 2018. The risk of opioid abuse increases by 20% for every week a patient stays on the medication.

Intermountain Healthcare discovered in surveys that patients were frequently using less than half of the opioids they were prescribed.

“Medical providers are in this tough place, because they don’t want people to be in extraordinary pain, but they also want to keep people safe,” Nichols said.

Intermountain Healthcare began working at a system wide level in 2015 to lower Utah’s opioid overdoses. Nichols said Utah had traditionally been in the top ten nationally for opioid deaths and has since dropped to being in the low 20s in rankings.

“It is clear it is a significant health issue in our community,” Nichols said.

Intermountain launched an opioid community collaborative, which has shared solutions about opioid abuse.

“We want a very comprehensive and collaborative approach,” she said. “This concern is bigger than Intermountain Healthcare.”

It has also installed medication disposal drop boxes in each of its clinics and has worked to educate caregivers about the potential dangers of opioids.

Intermountain Healthcare’s survey results found that more than 80% of Utahns dispose of their medications. More than 36,000 lbs of medications have been dropped in Intermountain’s 23 community pharmacy drop boxes since Feb. 2015.

Nichols said the community is becoming more aware of the dangers of keeping unused opioids around, such as children and adolescents who aren’t prescribed them taking the medications.

The organization has found that three days worth of opioids for many patients is sufficient.

It’s reduced the number of opioids prescribed for acute pain by 35% across its system, which has led to a 6.5 million fewer tablets being prescribed from 2017 to 2019. Its goal is to decrease that amount by 40%.

Nichols said that while Intermountain Healthcare is unable to track how many people have an addiction to opioids, the system is seeing overdose numbers decrease. She said it is focused on preventing addictions from forming in order to decrease the amount of deaths caused by overdoses.

The system is working on getting treatment for addictions started while an overdose patient is in an emergency department instead of having them wait three to six weeks for an appointment. It is also looking to create opioid-free surgery centers.

Nichols said she wants patients to speak to their medical providers about opioids and say if they’re at risk or don’t want a prescription.

Utah County’s other hospitals have also seen progress under the campaign. Timpanogos Regional Hospital in Orem and Mountain View Hospital in Payson have both adopted an opioid reduction plan called Alternatives to Opioids in the Emergency Room, or ALTO in the ER. Timpanogos Regional Hospital has reduced opioid prescriptions in ER by 18% and Mountain View Hospital has reduced them by 12%, according to Nate Black, a spokesman for both hospitals. Overall, about 15% of ER patients receive an opioid prescription.

An enhanced surgical recovery initiative has led to a 50.4% decrease in opioid use following major surgeries during 2018 and 2019 across HCA Healthcare hospitals, which is the umbrella company for MountainStar Healthcare, which operates both Timpanogos Regional Hospital and Mountain View Hospital.

“We have had a huge decrease in opioid use,” Black said.

Black said the hospitals are prescribing alternative medications, such as ketamine or lidocaine, that Timpanogos Regional Hospital is using AccendoWave electroencephalography technology to ease pain, and that both hospitals have capped off opioid prescriptions to five days worth of medication.

The hospitals also anticipate that electronic prescribing of opioids will be online by the end of their first quarters this year. Black said the new system will make the prescription process more secure by ending the use of paper prescription pads.

Black said overdose deaths often come from people who have access to unused and leftover opioids from friends and family members. The hospitals are working to educate patients about why they shouldn’t share or hold on to unused medications.

It’s added a prescription drop box for unused medications at Mountain View Hospital. Black said that the Payson hospital sees more drug-seeking behavior than the northern end of the county.

“That is a hot spot that has been identified by the county Health Department, and so I think that we are having a major impact on that area just by the fact that we aren’t prescribing as much,” Black said.

As work continues into 2020, Black said it’s an issue the hospitals are working on.

“It is something that we are constantly reminded of, this need to make sure that we are making sure we are not contributing to the problem, but that we are actively and proactively resolving it,” he said.

Redistricting power at stake in 2020 legislative elections

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The reins of political power in the U.S. for the next decade could be determined in this year’s elections — not necessarily by who wins the presidency, but by thousands of lower-profile contests for state legislative seats.

In many states, the winners of those legislative races will have a role in drawing new districts for Congress or state legislatures based on the 2020 census. If a political party can win control of those state legislative chambers now, it can draw voting districts to boost its chances in future elections.

“The 2020 election is the premier election when it comes to redistricting, because it is the election that will set the players in place who will do redistricting come 2021,” said Wendy Underhill, director of elections and redistricting for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Voters will be electing more than 5,000 state lawmakers in 35 states who will play a significant role in crafting or passing new maps for Congress or state House and Senate districts. Voters also will be electing governors in eight states who could enact or veto those maps.

The Constitution requires a census once every 10 years. That population count then is used to redraw districts for the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislative chambers. States that grow rapidly can gain congressional seats while those that fail to keep pace can lose seats. Migration among cities, suburbs and rural areas also can lead to changes in district lines to try to equalize the number of residents in each voting jurisdiction.

Seven states have only one congressional district because of their small populations. Of the remaining 43 states, eight use redistricting commissions for Congress that leave little or no role for the state legislature. Eleven of the 50 states rely on independent commissions for redistricting their state House and Senate seats. The rest involve lawmakers in the process, and most give governors a say.

Republicans generally outmaneuvered Democrats during the last round of redistricting by converting big wins in the 2010 state elections into favorable maps for the future. Democrats successfully challenged some of those maps in court, forcing them to be redrawn, but others have remained in place for the full decade.

This time, Democrats are pouring more money into the redistricting fight. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee has boosted its fundraising target from about $10 million during the 2009-2010 election cycle to $50 million in the 2019-2020 elections. Various Democratic-aligned groups are kicking in tens of millions more, including the National Democratic Redistricting Committee led by former Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder.

“We’ve got the next 10 years of politics at stake in these elections,” said Patrick Rodenbush, communications director for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.

The Republican State Leadership Committee, which calls its redistricting campaign “Right Lines 2020,” hasn’t disclosed a fundraising goal for the year. But it had a target of as much as $50 million for state legislative and down-ballot statewide races during the 2017-18 election cycle.

“This is the long-term investment,” Republican State Leadership Committee President Austin Chambers said. “This is about making sure that we have a congressional majority and a conservative majority across the country at the state and local level for the next decade.”

In some states with politically divided governments, including Wisconsin and Minnesota, Democrats will be making a play in the 2020 elections to win full control of redistricting while Republicans will be seeking to hold on to a seat at the table.

The 2020 elections won’t matter at all in some states — at least not when it comes to redistricting including California and Michigan.

Four of the biggest redistricting prizes in the 2020 legislative elections are Texas, Florida, North Carolina and Georgia.

Isaac Hale Daily Herald 

Brigham Young University’s Brittney Vitkauskas competes in the floor exercise event during BYU’s season-opening gymnastics meet against the University of Nebraska held Monday, Jan. 6, 2020, at the Marriott Center in Provo. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald