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Election news from across Utah's statewide and national races in 2020.

Election 2020: David Leavitt On Criminal Justice Reform And Why He's Challenging Utah AG Sean Reyes

Photo of two men behind podiums on a stage
Courtesy of Rick Egan
Salt Lake Tribune
David Leavitt, left, has been the Utah County Attorney since 2018. Leavitt is challenging Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes because Leavitt says Reyes hasn't focused enough on reforming the state's criminal justice system.

The Democratic nominee for Utah’s race for attorney general is already decided, but two Republican primary candidates will face off for the spot on the November ballot: incumbent Attorney General Sean Reyes and Utah County Attorney David Leavitt.

KUER is bringing voters conversations with each of them, and Emily Means spoke first with David Leavitt about his campaign.

Emily Means: Some people may not know what the state attorney general does. How do you view that role and its responsibilities?

David Leavitt: Well, the state attorney general is the chief law enforcement official for the state of Utah, and he's the civil adviser for every agency of state government. Traditionally, the attorney general has focused that role on being the civil adviser for state government. And it's been a long time since there was anyone that's been, for example, a district attorney or a county attorney who understands the criminal justice system. But the primary role of the attorney general ought to be trying to make sense of a criminal justice system that's completely out of balance.

EM: The main issue of your platform is criminal justice reform. So, what does criminal justice reform in Utah look like to you?

DL: Reforming the criminal justice system should mean two things. Number one, it should mean that we are treating this system so that it will endure for many generations in preserving Americans' freedoms. Number two, in individual cases, it needs to be reformed so that people are better off when they leave the criminal justice system than when they got into the criminal justice system. And today, that's not happening. People get caught in the criminal justice system and the system makes them worse.

EM: So, what would it look like for people to leave that system better off than when they entered it?

DL: Well, you have to understand that the violent and the dangerous, they need to be in prison. They need to be in prison either to protect us from them or to get them help so that they will stop hurting us. That's only 10% of our prison population. The remaining 90% are not violent people. 

What that means for them is let's give them a punishment that helps them pay their debt to society, that also helps them to recover and become the kind of people that they can become and help them become productive members of society. Right now, all we do is slap a jail sentence on them and a fine on them and warehouse them, and that does nothing to help them become better, and it only makes society worse.

EM: You criticized your opponent, current Attorney General Sean Reyes, for his handling of law enforcement contracts with third parties that critics say violate personal privacy. So, how do you think about the balance between the two issues, privacy and public safety?

DL: Well that's the $64 question as to how to strike that balance. But you have to adhere to the philosophy that just because you can do something doesn't mean you should do something, because we value our privacy rights. 

First, I don't think that you should use that technology unless you have direct evidence that someone is violating the law. You go to the court. You get a warrant. You get judicial permission to engage in that kind of behavior or that kind of surveillance activity that can be viewed by a third party, and that ultimately becomes public. That gives us a measure of protection that says the government isn't going to simply go out and start engaging with all this technology in the idea of preventing crime. Once you start trying to do that, then you lose our freedoms.

EM: Utah is in a lawsuit right now to repeal the Affordable Care Act. I'm wondering, under what circumstances should the attorney general get involved in political issues like the ACA or abortion or immigration or what have you?

DL: I believe quite strongly that the attorney general in today's setting should be as far removed from politics as they possibly can be. That's one of my big criticisms of Sean Reyes is that he's nothing more than a whip-‘em-up politician. And when you're the chief law enforcement official for a state, that doesn't leave people feeling very warm and fuzzy when they don't agree with you politically. 

Our criminal justice system should be completely removed from politics. And the advice that an attorney general gives to state agencies certainly is going to be informed by that person's political leanings. But the office of attorney general should not be used for political purposes.

EM: This is a primary race, and a Republican holds the office of attorney general currently. So why do you think there needs to be a change?

DL: Because criminal justice reform isn't about politics. Our society is in real peril because of how we are treating criminal justice in America and specifically for our situation in Utah. And I don't care what party you're from, if you're not engaging in meaningful reform, you need to go. Because our current attorney general is all wrapped up in human trafficking that's occurring in Ecuador and Colombia and other parts outside of Utah. Utah had less than 100 trafficking cases last year. We have tens of thousands of people in our state that are suffering because of how we handle criminal justice. And to me, criminal justice reform is a far larger issue than “are you a Republican or a Democrat?”

Emily Means covers politics for KUER. Follow her on Twitter @Em_Means13

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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