Something rare in Montgomery County: A contested race for top prosecutor

For the first time in 16 years, the incumbent top prosecutor in Maryland’s largest county faces primary appointments — three of them — who say the very nature John McCarthy’s established status as Montgomery County State’s Attorney underscores why new blood is needed.

“There’s a disconnect between what the community wants and the status quo,” says Bernice Mireku-North — a lawyer in private practice and a former line prosecutor in nearby Anne Arundel County — who is seeking to unseat McCarthy.

The other challengers — Tom DeGonia and Perry Paylor — have been making similar pitches in a region of 1.1 million residents just north of Washington. All three cite local incarceration rates that they say disproportionally tilt toward minorities and stressing to voters they’re far more willing to drive fundamental change.

“Longevity in itself isn’t bad,” says DeGonia, a private attorney and former prosecutor. “The problem is when you start to take the office for granted — as opposed to serving the public — and can’t acknowledge what you’re doing is not state of the art.”

Adds Paylor, a top ranking prosecutor in neighboring Prince George’s County and a former private attorney: “The pursuit of criminal justice is evolving across the country, but it’s not evolving at the appropriate pace here in Montgomery County.”

McCarthy calls the assertions nonsense, saying he has led Maryland’s prosecutors in reforms since taking office. And he says their views reflect a limited understanding of what voters want during times of rising gun violence.

“Without any question, people who are interested in public safety see me as their best advocate,” he says.

Residents have already started making their choice for the office as part of Maryland’s early voting process. Election Day looms on Tuesday. Their selection for Montgomery State’s Attorney will be the final word, as no Republicans are running, which is not unusual in the highly Democratic county.

The office prosecutes everything from misdemeanors to murders, employing about 82 attorneys along with other staff.

McCarthy, 70, taught high school briefly after college, took night classes at the University of Baltimore, and eventually joined the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office in 1982. He rose through the office, handled a number of high-profile murder cases, and in 2006 sought to lead the office — an elected post in Maryland.

He sailed to victory, and has been rarely challenged since — going unopposed in the 2010, 2014 and 2018 primaries, and facing a Republican challenger in only one of those races — eight years ago.

He has received endorsements from several Democratic leaders including, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, former Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett and current Montgomery County State Sen. Will Smith. Leggett was the first Black county executive in Montgomery County, and Smith is the first Black chair of the state’s powerful Judicial Proceedings Committee.

“John’s record and my relationship with him — that’s why I endorsed him,” says Smith, who has pushed for criminal justice reforms.

Of the three challengers, DeGonia, 51, has proposed a detailed structural shift for the office. He would decentralize operations in favor of “community-based prosecution” by placing prosecutors in each of the county’s six police district stations. That approach, DeGonia says, would allow prosecutors to better inform police officers of reform measures, get prosecutors engaged earlier in their cases, and enable crime victims to know who was handling their cases.

“It’s much of more of a community-engagement model,” he says.

DeGonia, a native of Missouri, graduated from American University’s Washington School of Law, and worked as a prosecutor in Montgomery’s State’s Attorney’s Office for eight years, eventually running a felony team before going on to private practice in Rockville. DeGonia recently served as president of the Montgomery County Bar Association.

In his campaign, DeGonia said, he has knocked on the doors of more than 5,000 residents. He promises to attack the proliferation of firearms in Montgomery, particularly ghost guns — which are often assembled at home and are hard to trace — by setting up a detailed, multidisciplinary firearms task force. It would prosecute cases, looking to impose stiff sentences where possible, but also support youth conflict-resolution programs and work with state and federal agencies to try to halt the trafficking of illegal guns into the county.

DeGonia also emphasized racial justice and says he would “overhaul systems set up to dehumanize defendants.”

He says that under McCarthy, the State’s Attorney’s Office has no way to track if minority defendants are treated differently along the many steps of the criminal justice system: How they are charged; how often they’re given a chance at diversion and treatment programs designed to avoid jail; what kind of plea deals they’re offered; and if convicted, what kinds of sentences are imposed.

“You can’t know if your programs are working if you’re not tracking who is succeeding and who is not succeeding,” DeGonia says.

The assertion got a boost this week by the release of a report by the Montgomery County Council’s Legislative Oversight Office that was critical of data collection in McCarthy’s Office.

“The State’s Attorney’s Office (SAO) has not prioritized top-line data reporting or performance measurement,” the report found. “The SAO is unable to report data that makes comparisons between racial and/or ethnic groups in a consistent and transparent way because their data is housed in an outdated case management system that contains erroneous and inconsistent data.”

McCarthy said he agreed with many of the report’s findings while noting the report detailed how complicated data collection can be in the criminal justice system. Demographic information about defendants comes in from different sources — police, jails, courts, his office — and cannot be synthesized on software systems designed years ago to manage cases and not parse out such data.

It is for that very reason, McCarthy said, that he is upgrading his data management systems and last year commissioned a study of his office by a group called Prosecutorial Performance Indicators, which has also studied prosecution offices in Chicago, Tampa and elsewhere.

Challenger Paylor, 53, who serves as a deputy state’s attorney in Prince George’s County, said about 61 percent of the inmates in Montgomery’s jail population are Black, Paylor says, while the percentage of Black residents in the county is about 20 percent.

For Montgomery’s juvenile defendants detained in youth facilities, the numbers are even more stark: 93 percent of youth held before their cases being resolved are “non-White,” according to a February 2021 report by the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, and 100 percent who are charged as adults are non-White. (The report does not provide the underlying totals for those percentages, and notes that the majority of all youth ages 11-17 in Montgomery County — 64 percent — are non-White.)

“It’s time to bring a fresh approach and new eyes to that office,” says Paylor.

A longtime private attorney, Paylor joined the Prince George’s State’s Attorney’s office as a prosecutor in 2019 and in 2020 was promoted to a deputy leadership post there.

If elected in Montgomery, he plans to assign three prosecutors, an investigator and a paralegal to a “conviction and sentencing integrity unit,” which would review past cases prosecuted by the office that may have had questionable outcomes. And he says he’d bring behavioral health specialists into the office to help evaluate and recommend possible case dispositions.

“We want to put our resources into reducing recidivism,” he said.

Paylor said he also would go after the proliferation of ghost guns, saying he’d be “aggressive, fair and consistent” with how he’d prosecute gun cases.

“I am the candidate to bring Montgomery County into modern times,” he said during a candidates forum sponsored by the Montgomery Women’s Democratic Club.

Two years ago, Mireku-North, 40, was named co-chair of Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich’s “Reimagining Public Safety Task Force.”

That position, according to Mireku-North, offered insight into the State’s Attorney’s Office that helped shape her decision to seek the office. She said she found transparency and data collection lacking, which she would make a top priority.

A former prosecutor and current private attorney, Mireku-North said fear of crime is very real in the county and must be addressed. Some residents worry about being mugged walking through Silver Spring at night, or being carjacked while driving. She promised to “seek zealous and fair prosecution when warranted.”

But Mireku-North’s larger message is to reform the office — she promises to make the most change of any candidate — and reduce “the over-criminalization of our youth.”

She promised to establish a “diversion coordination team” in the office that can spot community-based options for defendants to keep them out of jail early on in the process of cases.

During the candidate forum, Mireku-North delivered an impassioned promise to push prosecutors to look at juvenile offenders more broadly and as whole people.

“What’s going on with the family? What’s going on with school before we even consider putting that person through the system and further traumatizing them?” she said. “Because that’s what it’s really all about. When these kids are going through the system, they’re going through something that’s a result of trauma. And it’s about time we stop disregarding that. That’s inappropriate for this county and not the way to move forward for the future of Montgomery County.”

McCarthy acknowledged that the criminal justice system has historically been unfair to minorities, and too many Black defendants are behind bars. But he said the reasons are far more complicated than one prosecutor’s office, and said he has constantly worked to address the problem.

“When we charge someone, when we offer a plea deal, anything, we absolutely don’t care what their race is,” McCarthy said.

His said his office has constantly worked to reduce the number of nonviolent offenders in the county jail by diverting thousands of defendants into treatment and other programs. And he touts programs to keep people from ever being charged, including “Speak up, Save a Life,” which warns teenagers of the dangers of opioid use.

“My frustration about this race has been nearly everything that has been mentioned that needs to be we’ve already done,” McCarthy said.

Smith, the state senator who endorsed him, called his three challengers talented and likable. But he noted that McCarthy was someone he first met as a youth — he played in a basketball league against a team coached by McCarthy.

Their friendship grew into a professional one, to the point that Smith said McCarthy remains a key local prosecutor with whom he can discuss criminal justice reform issues.

“I think his own initiatives, his record on these issues is clear,” Smith said. “But the most important thing about his candidacy his he understands we’re nowhere near where we need to be.”

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