Utah County attorney wants to rethink criminal justice

PROVO, Utah (AP) — 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.

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“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.”

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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.

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“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.

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