Utah County Attorney David Leavitt said he would bring jury trials back to the state’s criminal justice system if elected Utah Attorney General while incumbent Sean Reyes said criminal justice reform is hardly the only issue facing the state today.
The two GOP candidates vying to be the state’s top prosecutor faced off in a debate on Tuesday ahead of the June 30 Republican primary election.
Leavitt, who has spent his year and a half as Utah County Attorney focusing on shifting the county away from its reliance on plea bargains as an alternative to jury trials, said it is time to take these reforms to the state level.
“The one power that the founders never gave government was the power to decide someone’s guilt or innocence, to take away their liberty,” Leavitt said during Tuesday’s debate, which was hosted by the Utah Debate Commission. “They reserved that power to themselves through the jury trial. But today, 99 times out of 100, prosecutors like me and like Mr. Reyes give plea bargains, which means 99 times out of 100, we never have to prove the allegations we make.”
Prison populations have skyrocketed over recent decades as a result of the state and country’s reliance on plea bargains, Leavitt said, adding that “the reason why we need criminal justice reform is because we are losing our very liberties.”
But Reyes said taking every criminal case to trial is not only unnecessary, it is overambitious and unrealistic.
“There’s no way ... that we can fund my opponent’s idea of taking every case to trial,” said Reyes. “So even if it was constitutionally necessary, which it isn’t, it’s so economically out of the realm of reality.”
Reyes criticized Leavitt for being so focused on a single issue and said that, in his six and a half years as Attorney General, he has “done more than my opponent on criminal justice reform right here in the state of Utah over and over and over again.”
On the subject of human trafficking, which has been a primary focus of Reyes’ as Attorney General, Leavitt said there are more pressing issues facing Utah, including a surge of nonviolent offenders behind bars.
“Unfortunately, most of Mr. Reyes’ work on human trafficking has been outside the state,” said Leavitt. “It’s a huge problem in Colombia, it’s a huge problem in Ecuador, it’s a huge problem in Central America. But I’ll tell you, there’s a form of human trafficking occurring in Utah for which the Attorney General gives no audience. 90% of the people in our jails are not violent criminals. Every time we put someone in jail when they should be dealt with differently, that’s a form of human trafficking.”
Leavitt said the state’s top prosecutor should do more to crack down on white-collar crime and financial schemes, arguing that “it is easier to steal $10,000 in this state than it is a Snickers bar from the local convenience store.”
Reyes contended that he’s done a number of things in office to reduce white-collar crime in Utah, including creating an economic crimes task force to combat spoofing attacks and robocalls and prosecuting a $70 million Ponzi scheme case.
When asked about the state’s now-suspended contract with Banjo, a Park City-based surveillance company that aggregates data to help law enforcement solve crimes more quickly whose founder, Damien Patton, was recently revealed to have been a member of the Ku Klux Klan as a teenager, Leavitt said the real concern was how the contract came to be and the nature of the technology itself.
“The real issue here isn’t the past of Banjo’s founder,” said Leavitt. “He was a young boy from a hard and bad family, a dysfunctional family, that’s not the issue. The real issue here is the fact that the Attorney General, whose job it is to make sure that state government’s contracts are legal and follow procurement guidelines, absolutely ignored the contract and gave a nearly $21 million contract to a company whose technology was still being developed and rolled out.”
Reyes responded, “We don’t give contracts. The Legislature appropriates the funds. So we have no control over what the Legislature does that way. We abided (by) the procurement process.”
The debate took place as tens of thousands of Americans across the country are protesting police brutality after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Leavitt said that “a large part of this problem is that prosecuting attorneys across this country and also in the state of Utah have not done a good enough job holding police accountable for their actions.”
Reyes said he acknowledged the frustration and anger of protesters and is dedicated to holding police accountable, noting that he has filed lawsuits against sheriffs and police officers.
“There is a racial divide,” Reyes said. “As a person of color, I understand it very deeply.”
The full debate can be viewed on the Utah Debate Commission’s Facebook page.