Candidates running for Utah Attorney General shared their perspectives on topics ranging from county jail deaths to how they would revise office policies in light of new prosecutor data collection requirements in a survey sent to their campaigns.
The survey was sent out June 2 by Smart Justice Utah, an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Utah program focused on prosecutorial and parole reform in the state.
“Utah’s top prosecutor has a significant impact on criminal justice issues,” Smart Justice Coordinator Jason Groth said in a press release. “The Attorney General can fundamentally change the practices of local prosecutors and support policies to end mass incarceration and racial disparities in our criminal justice system.”
The four attorneys vying to be Utah Attorney General were asked to fill out the survey and respond to a number of questions, including how they would revise office policies related to House Bill 288, a bill that would require prosecutors and county jails to track data on inmate race, gender and ethnicity, among other things, and report findings to the Utah State Legislature.
The survey asked which office policies or practices the candidates would be most interested in revising with the information provided from H.B. 288, which was sponsored by Rep. Marsha Judkins, R-Provo, and signed by Gov. Gary Herbert on March 28.
Utah County Attorney David Leavitt, who is running as a Republican, responded that screening and charging, plea bargains, diversion or restorative justice programs and sentencing recommendations were the areas he’d be most interested in revising.
“As Utah County Attorney, I am reforming screening, plea bargaining, sentencing and redemptive justice policies,” Leavitt said in an explanation of his response. “I supported HB288 and believe it will assist in greater reform efforts.”
Democratic candidate and Salt Lake-based attorney Greg Skordas responded that he would focus on revising office policies regarding screening and charging, plea bargains and diversion or restorative justice programs.
“The public is entitled to transparency,” Skordas said.
Incumbent Attorney General Sean Reyes and Libertarian candidate Rudy Bautista, a criminal defense attorney based in Salt Lake City, had not provided responses to the Smart Justice Utah survey as of Monday.
The survey also asked whether the candidates would use the information made available through H.B. 288 “to exercise supervisory powers and train county prosecutors throughout Utah on how to reduce mass incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system.”
Both Leavitt and Skordas responded that they would.
Skordas said doing so “would be a priority” and would be made possible “through the ongoing coordinated training between these offices.”
“Utah hasn’t had an attorney general in the last 30 years that has exercised supervisory powers over county attorneys,” responded Leavitt. “It has created unfair disparities in treatment of defendants in Utah’s 29 counties. Because of a lack of supervision of county attorneys, Utah essentially has 29 separate criminal justice systems.”
Reyes criticized Leavitt’s position on supervising county attorneys during a debate ahead of the June 30 Republican primary, calling Leavitt an “emperor” who wanted to “tell and dictate to the county attorneys what they would do.”
“The state should not be dictating the counties what the counties are supposed to be doing,” Reyes said during the June 2 debate.
When asked about county jail deaths in Utah, which Smart Justice Utah said has the highest per-capita jail death rate in the country, both Leavitt and Skordas said they would “commit to conducting independent investigations of all deaths in Utah county jails and publicly release findings and recommendations to prevent such deaths in the future.”
“A jail death is an officer involved critical incident (OICI), as defined in Utah law,” said Leavitt. “I support the attorney general’s office supervising all OICI investigations, statewide. To do this, however, will require a change in the Utah Statute, which I wholeheartedly support.”
“I assumed that was already in place,” Skordas said. “If not, it would be a priority.”
The Republican and Democratic candidates both said they would take steps “to protect the rights of all Utahns, regardless of national origin and immigration status.”
“I have taken an oath as Utah County Attorney to support and uphold the Constitution of the United States and the State of Utah,” Leavitt said. “Any human being who is on our soil enjoys those same rights. Recognizing my duty to protect those rights is my highest obligation.”
“I only ask that you consider my 38-year history as a lawyer,” said Skordas. “You will find that I am the most inclusive of all the candidates for AG.”
Skordas and Leavitt both said they would work to reduce the number of people incarcerated in Utah and supported eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, as well as statewide efforts to ensure incarcerated voters can cast a ballot.
The candidates’ full responses can be viewed at http://smartjusticeutah.org/prosecutorial-reform.