Province • The Utah County prosecutor decides who to charge with crimes, when to offer a plea deal and what justice policies govern the office, a panel of community members pointed out Tuesday, speaking passionately about the power of the prosecutor.
But absent from the discussion of the importance 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 meant to be a debate between the two candidates.
But Gray would not participate, saying the ACLU and other participating groups were “left-wing, agenda-driven organizations” that weren’t neutral enough to host the debate.
“Usually when you have a debate it’s done by a neutral party, like the press,” Gray said in a phone interview as he traveled south to another County campaign event. Utah held Tuesday night. “Quite frankly, I have never seen a debate involving parties that are not neutral. What we have here is sponsored by very leftist groups.
The ACLU event was probably the only opportunity for a debate between the two Republican candidates. No Democrats are running for the job, so voters will decide the next county prosecutor in the June 28 primary.
Leavitt was in the audience Tuesday night, but did not speak publicly besides briefly thanking the co-sponsors for caring about the criminal justice system.
“Gray is afraid to debate,” he told the Salt Lake Tribune. “Because it’s one thing to embrace the rhetoric he does, and it’s another to actually and thoughtfully discuss the issues.”
The discussion was co-sponsored by the ACLU of Utah, Disability Law Center, Mormon Women for Ethical Government, Utah Prisoner Advocate Network, Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness, and Fresh Start Ventures, an organization that provides training and support to people who have been previously incarcerated.
“Decades ago, the ACLU may have been a more neutral organization, but given the positions it now takes, and has for many years, I could not in good conscience participate in this debate” , Gray wrote on Facebook. “The setup of the event and the survey questions sent with the debate invitation made it clear that the event was more about advancing their agenda and worldview than about honest and open debate.”
“Honestly,” he added, “if your views align with the ACLU, David Leavitt probably fits your view better.”
Leavitt wanted a debate on Tuesday and said he didn’t care who hosted it.
“I think anyone, from any right-to-left spectrum, if they want to talk about political issues and debate, the candidate better come forward,” he said. “If the candidate does not show up, the question is why are you not showing up? If you can’t stand up for your principles to a group of people who don’t agree with you, you’re looking for the wrong job.
Niki Venugopal, campaigns director for the ACLU of Utah, said Tuesday that her organization has a track record of successfully hosting prosecutorial debates in Utah, including previous Republican primary debates.
She added that the ACLU held these types of events because county attorney races don’t typically receive the same attention or voter engagement compared to other, more high-profile races.
“That’s why we’ve worked to provide a platform for Republican primary candidates to share their views with Utah County residents and engage on local issues,” she said. declared.
Instead, organizers moved Tuesday’s event from a panel discussion to a panel discussion, with representatives from each of the co-sponsors.
The event, which was sparsely attended in person but had an audience watching online, focused on educating attendees about the importance of the county prosecutors’ race and the impact prosecutors can have. on criminal justice issues, such as mass incarceration, the death penalty and advocacy. negotiations. The panel’s comments largely focused on the desire for criminal justice reform and not to treat mental health or addiction issues as crimes.
Leavitt has focused on reform since taking over as Utah County prosecutor in 2019. He has reduced the number of felony cases his office has prosecuted and implemented a diversion program pre-filing where those arrested for minor, non-violent crimes can stay out of the criminal justice system and are instead connected to resources
But Gray, who works as an appellate counsel for the Utah attorney general’s office, believes these reforms have gone too far and lost focus on victims and community safety.
Gray takes 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 Fraternal Order of Utah Police, while Leavitt has been heavily criticized by both for his politics.
The challenger supports the death penalty – while Leavitt has vowed never to seek the death penalty again while in office.