Utah County Attorney David Leavitt is running for a second term, and hopes his goal of correcting the county’s criminal justice system is enough to get him reelected.
He said fixing the system is a long-term commitment, and it couldn’t be done in four years.
“I ran for the purpose of changing it, and restoring the right to trial by jury, right to a speedy trial and investigating crimes that hurt people the most,” he told the Daily Herald.
Leavitt called this election a “pivotal moment” and argues in his campaign that he has upheld his promise to make changes to the system since first being elected in 2018.
“Most Americans believe that the government proves the allegations the government makes against people. We all agree that the government shouldn’t punish someone without proving the case, but people are also shocked when they realize that 99% of the time, we don’t prove the cases. We charge things so we can get a plea deal so we don’t have to prove the case. It’s become more about efficiency than public safety,” Leavitt said.
Leavitt believes checks and balances within the county’s criminal justice system aren’t where they need to be. If the system worked properly, the prosecutor would serve as a check on the police and the jury as a check on the prosecutor, he said.
“In the 2022 criminal justice system, by and large, prosecutors are afraid of police and don’t operate as a check on police,” added Leavitt. “So, the police make calls regarding a case and the prosecution believes — wrongly — they are a rubber stamp for the police.”
If reelected, Leavitt wants to continue working on offering plea deals and taking more cases to a jury trial.
“The violent and dangerous need to go to prison,” he said. “But we don’t do that by giving them plea bargains where they get reduced sentences. We prove the case against them to a jury. The violent and dangerous get longer sentences, but to do that, we also have to take a different approach to the non-violent.”
Leavitt acknowledged he is often criticized as being “soft on crime,” but his rebuttal is that the county isn’t always prosecuting the right crimes.
“We will prosecute every shoplifter, but we don’t have the investigative power in Utah County to investigate someone who steals $50,000 in an embezzlement scheme,” he said. “But we pat ourselves on the back because we are getting the shoplifters, and we cover ourselves by not talking about the fact that we don’t have an answer for white collar crimes.”
One of his biggest points of pride in his first term was creating a system that notifies the county attorney’s office whenever a sexual assault is reported. This allowed the attorney’s office to track the cases, and see which ones they needed to pursue further.
According to Leavitt, the county attorney’s office had over 400 sexual assault cases on backlog when he took office, and all 400 have been processed within the past four years.
“77% of sexual assault reports from women die at police stations and won’t make it to the county attorney’s office,” he said. “Law enforcement looks at sexual assault through a man’s perspective and not through the eyes of a woman, and it’s just not acceptable. What we are doing is holding the system accountable to do a better job with sex crimes and going back and opening cases that should have been investigated.”
Leavitt also mentioned the repeated disagreements between himself and Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith.
“Anytime you tell anyone they could be doing it better, there’s a tendency for defensiveness,” he said. “When you do that to someone in authority in government, the defensiveness skyrockets, and that’s what I’m facing. The question for the public is, do you want it the same old way or do you want to try and make something better? That’s kind of been the issue with my campaign.”
Leavitt reiterated his belief that Smith has been opposed to him because he has been watchful of the actions coming from members of the sheriff’s office.
“Ask yourself, if the county attorney doesn’t check the sheriff’s office, then who does,” said Leavitt. “I’m the first county attorney in 40 years to hold the sheriff accountable. The reason he’s opposed to me is because I investigated three of his officers for beating an individual who was faced down on the ground and in handcuffs. When I wouldn’t sweep it under the rug, he looked at me and said, ‘I’m going to ruin you.’ and I said, ‘Take your best shot.'”
On May 17, Smith announced his endorsement of Leavitt’s opponent, Jeff Gray, with the main goal of removing Leavitt from office.
Leavitt believes Gray is smart, but that his lack of experience in civil government makes Leavitt more qualified for the role.
“When you look at the criminal side of things, we have a different philosophy,” he said. “The question of qualification doesn’t exist there, but it exists on the civil side. What do you do if you elect a county attorney that has no civil experience what-so-ever?”
Ballots for the Republican will be delivered to Utah County voters on Tuesday and Wednesday, while people can vote until June 28. While the race has generated plenty of attention and emotion, Leavitt is confident in the outcome.
“I think I’ll win. I’ve created a campaign to get my message out, but this truly is about giving the Utah County residents a choice. What kind of system do you want?”