Criminal justice reform needed now, says Utah County attorney

Jul 13, 2021, 6:25 PM

Leavitt cannibalism criminal justice reform...

FILE -- Utah County Attorney David Leavitt speaks during a press conference at the Utah County Commission Chambers in Provo Wednesday January 23, 2019. Photo credit: Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Over-charging of defendants by prosecutors, plea bargaining, and the pandemic have all moved the US court system away from trial by jury, and that is not how the Constitution is supposed to work. Criminal justice reform is needed now, said the Utah County attorney.

David Leavitt, who has been outspoken on criminal justice reform, joined KSL Newsradio’s Inside Sources to explain why we shouldn’t over-charge people accused of a crime or condone prosecutorial misconduct.

Guest host and former prosecutor-turned-defense attorney Greg Skordas asked Leavitt what his vision of criminal justice reform would look like.

“We call it criminal justice reform because most people in the criminal justice system today have been around less than 30 or 40 or 50 years,” Leavitt said. “Those who have been at it longer would recognize it as more of criminal justice restoration.”

Under the US Constitution, juries decided if a defendant is guilty — not prosecutors — in order to move power away from the government and toward the people.

Plea bargains began during the Civil War, Leavitt said, and picked up momentum during Prohibition. 

“By the time we got to 1969, we’re plea bargaining 75% of our cases,” he said.

Leavitt added during the pandemic, jury trials were suspended, and today, nearly 100% of cases are plea-bargained.

He said prosecutors can over-charge a defendant to gain leverage in order to motivate the accused to plead guilty. 

“That’s just not our system. It places all the power in the hands of the prosecutor, and really who are hurt and damaged by that is all of us because we were losing our constitutional rights to a jury trial,” Leavitt said.

Skordas said receiving a jury trial today in the United States is almost impossible due to the  backlog of cases.

“The reason we avoid trials for the most part is because of this notion of plea bargain,” Skordas said. “I don’t like the word, either, but how does this streamline the process?”

Leavitt said as Utah County attorney his office has an obligation to give all defendants a speedy trial, but they don’t have that option because the courts are not allowing it, so an emergency measure must be taken to revive the court system. 

“To get this thing back on track, we’re simply going to have to . . .  get rid of a bunch of cases because we can’t mortgage our future to try and bail out from what happened with the COVID crisis,” Leavitt said.

Inside Sources with Boyd Matheson can be heard weekdays from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on KSL NewsRadio. Users can find the show on the KSL NewsRadio website and app.

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Criminal justice reform needed now, says Utah County attorney