Utah County’s David Leavitt faces same national pushback as other ‘progressive prosecutors’
Utah County Republicans gathered in a high school gym in early April to vote on who they wanted to nominate for the primary ballot. When it came time to vote for county attorney, the delegates made themselves very clear: they want incumbent David Leavitt out of office.
He got just 10% of the vote — and the delegates cheered when the results were read.
Leavitt, who took office in 2019 and is up for his first re-election, will still appear on the primary ballot, though. He gathered enough signatures to qualify.
Leavitt is one of many so-called progressive prosecutors that have been elected around the country over the past five years. He’s also one of many who now face backlash for being “soft on crime,” according to Shima Baradaran Baughman, a law professor at the University of Utah who studies prosecutors.
“Since the 1960s and 70s — the war on drugs — we've really dramatically focused on punishing every crime possible,” she said. “So because we've all grown up in this culture of, ‘well, you do something wrong, you get punished for it with incarceration,’ … people instinctually have this backlash.”
Among Leavitt’s critics are six prosecutors who say they left the county attorney’s office because of his policies. They publicly released a letter of no confidence in March.
Disbanding the Special Victims Unit
One of the co-signers, Lauren Hunt, now works as a civil attorney at a law firm in downtown Salt Lake City.
“I was in the office about a year under Leavitt, and it was such utter chaos,” she said.
She used to work in the Special Victims Unit, which prosecuted sex crimes and domestic violence cases. Leavitt disbanded that unit and spread the cases around the office.
Hunt said now those cases aren’t being handled as well, because those attorneys haven’t received the same level of training as her team.
“I was in the office for probably three years, second chairing sex cases with an experienced SVU attorney before I took on a case of my own,” she said.
Leavitt defends the move. He said prosecutors did get a week of training before they were assigned to SVU cases — and that spreading the caseload around is a way to prevent burnout.
“Unless you've prosecuted or defended a child sex abuse case or any kind of sex abuse case, you don't really realize that a sex abuse case kind of sucks the life out of you,” he said.
New charging guidelines
Leavitt has also changed how they decide what to do with all the cases coming to the office from law enforcement. He has a list of charging guidelines.
The guidelines say there is a preference for lower-risk, non-violent offenses to be charged as misdemeanors. They also say that, in most cases, retail theft, simple drug possession and disorderly conduct charges shouldn’t be upgraded to felonies based on the person’s prior convictions.
That’s having a real impact on how aggressively cases are charged. In 2021, Leavitt’s office charged half the cases in district court than his predecessor did in 2018. District Court handles felonies and more serious misdemeanors.
“What we are doing is decluttering the District Court,” he said, “so the District Court has time to adequately process the violent crime that needs to be there.”
This creates another problem, Hunt said, because the lower-level Justice Court doesn’t have the same resources — like drug courts and access to probation — to help rehabilitate people.
“In District Court, there are actual programs that the judge can send them to,” she said. “There's some incentive there for people to engage in that treatment and complete that treatment because they have to go back and see a judge and answer for it.”
Leavitt recognizes that and said it’s just going to take a little time for the rest of the justice system to catch up to the changes he’s making.
“It is a little bit like trying to turn a cruise ship,” he said. “It doesn't doesn't happen immediately.”
Tension with law enforcement
Leavitt is in hot water with law enforcement, too. The Utah County Fraternal Order of Police also issued a statement of no confidence.
According to Leavitt, that’s because he views the prosecutor’s office as a check on law enforcement.
“Checks and balances keep good people good,” Leavitt said in his speech to delegates during the Utah County convention. “In criminal justice, we have lost those checks. Prosecutors don't check police power and prosecutors shield themselves from the jury’s check on them.”
The FOP has endorsed Jeff Gray in this year’s election for county attorney. Gray works for the state attorney general prosecuting cases that get appealed. He said he wants to rebuild the county office’s relationship with law enforcement
“My view of law enforcement is we're on the same team,” he said. “The checks and balances are contained in the Constitution of the United States, where defendants have defense attorneys and they've got all the rights.”
Gray and Adam Pomeroy, Leavitt’s other challenger, both said they would charge cases more aggressively than Leavitt does.
During Leavitt’s first two years in office, violent crime rates in Utah County have gone up by less than 2%, according to data from the state and a KUER analysis. That’s slightly less than the national increase, according to the FBI. Property crime in Utah County has gone up 5%, but nationally it’s down.
Still, the U.S. has about half the crime as it did in the early 1990s, according to thePew Research Center.