New Utah County Attorney planning big changes for office 08

Utah County Attorney David Leavitt poses for a portrait at his office Tuesday, March 26, 2019, in Provo. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

After more than a year of fighting for criminal justice reform in the county, Utah County Attorney David Leavitt is hoping to bring reform to the state level.

Leavitt announced he had filed his candidacy for Utah Attorney General on Friday, the first day that constitutional office candidates could file.

“I ran for Utah County Attorney to reform a criminal justice system that we all understand is broken,” Leavitt said in a campaign announcement video. “While Utah County is a great place from which to change the criminal justice system, it isn’t the best spot. The most ideal spot is as the Utah Attorney General.”

In his first 14 months in office, Leavitt has made it a goal to shift Utah County away from plea bargains and increase the number of jury trials. According to Leavitt, 99% of criminal cases in the county never go to court because a plea bargain is reached.

“Every time we do a plea bargain, we take away the jury’s right to decide ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent,’” Leavitt told the Daily Herald in January, adding that this shift away from jury trials has given prosecutors a dangerous amount of power. “That’s what’s wrong with our criminal justice system.”

Earlier this month, Leavitt’s office rolled out a new plea bargain policy that makes it more difficult for prosecutors to dismiss or reduce the highest charge in a criminal case. Leavitt said he hopes the policy change will increase the number of jury trials and decrease the number of plea bargain deals struck in Utah County.

According to Leavitt, prosecutors cannot dismiss or reduce a highest charged offense without “specific agreement from all three members of the trial team.”

“In many respects, it (the policy change) opens up more possibilities for the prosecutor to resolve cases, but, also in many respects, it narrows their capacity as to what they can do,” Leavitt said earlier this month. “It cuts both ways.”

In addition to changing the Utah County Attorney’s Office’s plea bargain policy, Leavitt implemented a change to the way the office screens cases. Together, the “hand-in-hand” policies are “intended to decrease a reliance on the plea bargain and increase our respect for the jury trial as the cornerstone of our judicial system,” he said.

In an interview on Monday, Leavitt said he would bring similar changes statewide if he were elected.

“Those are all things that we need to implement in counties across this state,” he said.

As attorney general, Leavitt said he would work to decrease the state’s incarceration rate by calling for pre-filing diversion programs for nonviolent offenders, particularly those suffering from drug addiction.

“The drug problem is devastating to society, but the way we’re dealing with the drug problem simply isn’t effective,” said Leavitt. “We’ll never prosecute our way through the opioid crisis, and we’ll never incarcerate our way through the drug problem. We just have to find different solutions.”

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, who was appointed by Gov. Gary Herbert in 2013 following the resignation of then-Attorney General John Swallow, announced his run for re-election on Friday.

“The people of this state know I stand for the Rule of Law and justice for all, not just the elite,” Reyes said in a press release. “I will run a positive and strong campaign to remain Utah’s top law enforcement leader and the State’s principal legal counsel.”

Leavitt criticized Reyes for not being more involved with county attorney’s offices throughout the state, adding that in the 14 months he has been attorney of the second most populated county in the state, he hasn’t “even had a phone call from Sean Reyes.”

“In reality, we have 29 different criminal justice systems in the state of Utah, because the attorney general is the chief law enforcement official for the state of Utah and he has a statutory duty to supervise county and district attorneys,” Leavitt said. “And that never happens.”

Leavitt and Reyes, who are both running as Republicans, are the only two candidates for attorney general who have filed with the state elections office as of Monday. Candidates have until Thursday at 5 p.m. to file.

Connor Richards covers government, the environment and south Utah County for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at crichards@heraldextra.com and 801-344-2599.

See what people are talking about at The Community Table!