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Longtime Montgomery prosecutor faces 3 challengers in race focused on ‘evolving’ justice

Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy speaks during a news conference outside of the Circuit Courthouse in Rockville Md., Tuesday, June 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

The race to unseat Montgomery County’s long-serving chief prosecutor will focus less on who will be toughest on crime and more on who has the best plan for treating nonviolent criminals and removing vestiges of systemic bias from the criminal justice system.

Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy and his three opponents agree that gone are the days of prosecuting a lost war on drugs and enforcing three-strikes-and-you’re-out conviction policies that emphasized incarceration over rehabilitation and recidivism prevention.

Instead, prosecutors must look first toward treating the addiction and mental health problems of those engaged in illegal drug use and nonviolent crimes, while vigorously investigating and prosecuting violent offenses in a way that does not discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender or financial status, said the four declared candidates – all Democrats — in next year’s race for Montgomery County state’s attorney.

“We need to change the lens on what justice means,” says Bernice Mireku-North.

McCarthy’s three challengers – Tom DeGonia, Bernice Mireku-North and Perry Paylor – said this month that the incumbent has focused too much on securing convictions and not enough on seeking treatment for defendants.

“Justice is evolving,” said Paylor, deputy Prince George’s County state’s attorney. “It is not evolving at the appropriate pace in Montgomery County.”

Mireku-North, a Silver Spring solo practitioner, said that “there is a racial reckoning and a need for change in the current system.” She added, “People are tired of a system that is constantly punishing.”

DeGonia, a partner at Ethridge, Quinn, Kemp, Rowan & Hartinger in Rockville, said that “we should be thinking more strategically about who we are incarcerating.”

In response, McCarthy said his challengers have mistakenly superimposed national concerns about criminal justice on Montgomery County, where they have been addressed.

“We have not been stuck or captured by time,” said McCarthy, who is facing his fiercest re-election challenge since becoming state’s attorney in 2007. “We have been at the forefront of all these creative movements.”

Though elected prosecutors have historically been challenged from the right as being too soft on crime, McCarthy said he is not surprised that his opponents are striking from the left in light of the national discussion on the criminal justice system’s treatment of minorities and juveniles that has grown in recent years.

“There has been a refocusing on ethical issues, the impact-on-minority issues,” McCarthy said, adding that he implemented the county’s drug treatment courts and related prosecution diversion programs for addiction, mental health treatment and juvenile offenses before these discussions arose.

“Many of the things that people are calling on us to do, we have already done,” McCarthy said. “I live in the most diverse suburban community in the United States. We have been ahead of the curve.”

McCarthy added that his efforts to prevent, uncover and prosecute instances of police brutality predate the nationwide protests that followed the May 25, 2020, murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the knee of then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

McCarthy, 69, said he was an early supporter of placing body cameras on police officers to record their interaction with community members.

In addition, McCarthy cited an agreement he has with Howard County State’s Attorney Rich Gibson to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest if a police-related death occurs in either jurisdiction.  Under the accord, McCarthy’s office would investigate police-related deaths in Howard County and Gibson’s office would investigate such deaths in Montgomery County.

McCarthy added that he has ordered a study by independent researchers on how he and his staff decide which cases to pursue, which plea deals to offer and what sentences to request to determine whether and to what extent unconscious racial or ethnic bias factors into those decisions. The $500,000 study is expected to last two years.

“We are at a time when the current office is out of step with the current thinking and the current feeling in the community,” says Tom DeGonia.

But DeGonia, a former assistant Montgomery County state’s attorney, said McCarthy’s call for a study indicates he is out of touch.

“We are at a time when the current office is out of step with the current thinking and the current feeling in the community,” said DeGonia, who served as assistant prosecutor from 1999 to 2007.

“There is no denying the racial inequalities in the criminal justice system,” DeGonia said. “I don’t need a study to tell me that. The time for studies is over; the time for action is now.”

DeGonia, 50, said McCarthy’s diversionary programs are not aggressive enough in preventing drug addiction and treating mental health problems before they manifest themselves in criminal activity.

A state’s attorney must “look at the root of problem and not just trim at the branches” DeGonia said. “There is a desire for change and a new way to approach things. We can do better.”

State’s attorneys must “look at the individual” as well as the crime in deciding whether to prosecute, DeGonia said.

“The prosecution has a duty to seek justice, not vengeance,” he added. “Is this someone who should be separated from the community to keep us safe?”

DeGonia said particular attention should be placed on improving the juvenile justice system to ensure its focus remains on early intervention and treatment so as not to breed career criminals.

“The goal of juvenile justice is to make sure they don’t graduate to the adult system,” DeGonia said. “There are more progressive things to be done.”

Prosecutors should heed data on ways to treat delinquency in light of the impulsiveness of youth, the lack of full brain development until the age of 25 and the effects of poverty on behavior, he added.

Mireku-North, who served as an assistant Anne Arundel County state’s attorney from 2009 to 2015, said prosecutors must look beyond the facts and elements of a crime and examine the defendant’s socioeconomic circumstances and the role that racism or other improper bias may have played in the investigation of the crime.

“We need to change the lens on what justice means,” said Mireku-North, 39. “Knowing the backstory before filing the charges is very critical.”

She added that prosecutors should consult with social service and heath care agencies in deciding whether to prosecute nonviolent offenders, she added.

“We’re not considering the holistic view of what is happening,” Mireku-North said.

“Justice is evolving,” says Perry Paylor. “It is not evolving at the appropriate pace in Montgomery County.”

Prosecutors must ask themselves “is it necessary for these people to be in the system?” she said, adding that the question is particularly important with regard to juvenile offenders who need treatment not punishment.

“The justice system should be the last place to go for kids,” she said.

Paylor said too much attention is placed on the crime and not on the accused.

“The mantra of my office is going to be, ‘See the whole person,’” Paylor said.

“The theory of being tough on crime doesn’t serve the individual or the community as a whole,” he added. “Evaluate the crime and the whole person. You want to make sure each case is looked at individually.”

Paylor cited approvingly his office’s Back on Track diversion program for first-time, nonviolent drug dealing offenses, in which offenders are ordered to perform 280 hours of community service and graduate from a community college certificate program in return for which they will be sentenced to probation before judgment, which will immediately be expunged.

Paylor, 53, said the goals of the criminal justice system must include treatment for convicts to prevent recidivism when they are released and the review of convictions and sentences to ensure they were fair and free of racial bias.

“Justice and safety: We can have both,” Paylor said.

McCarthy and his challengers will face off in the June 28 primary election. No Republican candidates have filed to run for Montgomery County state’s attorney.

The general election is Nov. 8, 2022.