provo • The Utah County Attorney decides who to charge with crimes, when to offer a plea deal and what judicial policies the office will govern, a group of community members pointed out Tuesday, speaking impassionedly about the prosecutor’s power.
But missing from the discussion about the significance of the upcoming election were the two people on the primary ballot: incumbent David Leavitt and his Republican challenger, Jeff Gray.
The event, hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah and several Utah-based organizations focused on criminal justice, was intended to be a debate between the two candidates.
But Gray declined to participate, saying the ACLU and the other participating groups are “agenda-driven, left-wing organizations” that are not neutral enough to host the debate.
“Usually a debate is conducted by a neutral party like the press,” Gray said in a phone interview as he drove south to another Utah County campaign event taking place Tuesday night. “To be honest, I’ve never seen a debate involving parties that aren’t neutral. What we have here is sponsored by very leftist groups.”
The ACLU event was probably the only opportunity for debate between the two Republican candidates. There is no Democrat running for office, so voters in the June 28 primary will choose the next prosecutor.
Leavitt was in the audience Tuesday night but did not speak publicly, other than briefly thanking the co-sponsors for looking after the criminal justice system.
“Gray is afraid to debate,” he told the Salt Lake Tribune. “Because it’s one thing to own your rhetoric and quite another to actually and thoughtfully discuss the issues.”
The discussion was moderated by the ACLU of Utah, the Disability Law Center, Mormon Women for Ethical Government, the Utah Prisoner Advocate Network, Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness, and Fresh Start Ventures, an organization that provides training and support for affected people. carried previously imprisoned.
“Decades ago, the ACLU may have been a more neutral organization, but given the positions it currently champions, and has done so for many years, I could not in good conscience participate in this debate,” Gray wrote on Facebook. “The event setup and polling questions sent with the debate invite made it clear that the event is more about advancing their agenda and worldview than honest, open debate.”
“Honestly,” he added, “if your views align with the ACLU, David Leavitt is probably a better fit for your perspective.”
Leavitt wanted a debate Tuesday and said he didn’t care who moderated it.
“I think everyone, from every spectrum from right to left, if they want to speak about political issues and debates, the candidate had better show up,” he said. “If the candidate doesn’t show up, the question is, why don’t you come? If you can’t defend your principles to a group of people who disagree with you, you’re looking for the wrong job.”
Utah ACLU campaign director Niki Venugopal said Tuesday that her organization has a track record of conducting successful prosecutorial debates in Utah, including past Republican primary debates.
She added that the ACLU hosts these types of events because district attorney’s races don’t typically get the same attention or voter engagement as other, higher-profile races.
“That’s why we worked to provide a platform for Republican elementary school candidates to share their perspectives with people in Utah County and get involved in local issues,” she said.
Instead, organizers shifted Tuesday’s event from a debate to a panel discussion with representatives from all co-sponsors.
The event, which was sparsely attended in person but was followed by an audience online, focused on educating attendees on the importance of the prosecutors’ race and the impact prosecutors can have on criminal justice issues such as mass incarceration, the death penalty and plea bargaining Negotiations. The panel’s comments largely emphasized a desire for criminal justice reform rather than treating mental health or addiction problems as crimes.
Leavitt has been focused on reform since taking over as Utah County attorney in 2019. He has reduced the number of crime cases prosecuted by his office and established a pre-filing diversion program that allows people arrested for minor, nonviolent crimes to stay out of the criminal justice system and instead connect to resources
But Gray, who works as an appellate attorney for the Utah attorney general’s office, thinks these reforms have gone too far and lost focus on victims and community safety.
Gray has a more conservative view of the role of a top prosecutor, saying he will hold criminals accountable and “charge them based on what the evidence supports.”
Gray has the support of the Utah County Sheriff and the Utah Fraternal Order of Police, while Leavitt has been heavily criticized by both for his policies.
The challenger supports the death penalty – while Leavitt has vowed never to seek the death penalty again while in office.
https://www.sltrib.com/news/2022/06/08/utah-county-attorney/ Utah County paralegal skips ACLU debate, saying organization is too ‘liberal’