Credit: File photos

The three candidates challenging incumbent Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy say changes are needed to address the recent rise in violent crime across Montgomery County. McCarthy, who is running for a fifth term, agrees that more can be done to address an increase in gun violence and other types of crimes, but says the county is already ahead of the game in many areas.

In the July 19 Democratic primary, McCarthy is being challenged by:

  • Tom DeGonia, a Rockville attorney and former Montgomery County prosecutor
  • Bernice Mireku-North, a Silver Spring attorney and former Anne Arundel County prosecutor
  • Perry Paylor, a deputy state’s attorney in Prince George’s County

No Republican candidates have filed to run for the office of state’s attorney.

How to address the influx of guns

Montgomery County Police Chief Marcus Jones told Bethesda Beat that through May 24, more than 500 guns had been seized in the county so far this year, 100 of which were privately manufactured firearms, or ghost guns.

McCarthy said in an interview over the weekend that a state law that took effect this month banning the sale and distribution of ghost guns is a good first step. Additionally, he has formed a gun safety task force recently with police to address the rise in violence.

McCarthy said he is particularly worried about guns falling into the hands of teens, who have been involved in a number of homicides and other violent crimes this year. Possession of a firearm by those under 21 is generally prohibited in Maryland, unless they are being supervised by someone older than 21, according to state law.

“What we’re already doing is aggressively legislatively trying to make sure that we get the ability to take the ghost guns out of the hands, particularly, of children and prohibited persons,” he said.

McCarthy said his office, the police and the court system will play key roles in answering questions about why underage gun possession has become so prevalent in the county.

“We are going to use the grand jury to investigate each case,” he said. “[To] find out how the gun was purchased [and] who purchased it. How it was paid for, who assembled it. If it was bought from a third person, who was that third person? We are gonna begin to establish intelligence information relative to the unique issues that are present in Montgomery County.”

McCarthy said his office has identified one person who purchased more than 100 ghost guns, however he declined to provide additional details due to the ongoing investigation.

If elected, DeGonia said that he also plans to put together a firearm safety task force to combat gun violence that will be a concerted effort involving the police and the community. Among the task force’s members, DeGonia said, would be a senior prosecutor and a prosecutor who is cross-designated with the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s efforts to crack down on gun violence.

Separately, DeGonia also wants to employ a community-based prosecution model.

“We have six police districts, we have our prosecutions aligned vertically with those police district stations, you have a senior prosecutor who works, not just with the police, but with the principals, nonprofits and faith-based organizations to actually address the problems at the community level,” he said.

Addressing police-community relations

Most of the candidates said an improvement in the relationship between law enforcement and the community has to involve others such as business owners and violence interrupters – often community members that have been impacted by violence and are familiar with problems within specific communities. In some cases violence interrupters are former convicts.

“These people who come from the community who have had the opportunity to turn their lives around, they really send an incredible message,” Paylor said of violence interrupters. “They can come back to the community and say ‘Hey, don’t make the same mistakes I’ve made. And here are opportunities provided by the state’s attorney’s office to turn your lives around and avoid similar pitfalls.”

Paylor said that in Prince George’s County, violence interrupters often speak at schools and community events, such as cookouts with law enforcement.

“It’s a good start. But the young folks, they need constant communication and constant engagement,” he said. “It’s not just gonna happen in one summer or one cookout. It’s gonna take several positive interactions with the police over a period of years to build up trust.”

Mireku-North said she would add a “cultural competency” component to training for members of her staff, if elected, in order to effectively evaluate each community.

“For example, if there’s a situation where there’s a particular population that has an uptick in crime, look at the population,” she said. “What’s the racial makeup of that population, gender makeup, socioeconomic class. Understand what’s going on to better help prosecute those cases and produce fair outcomes. So I think that’s the part that’s missing.”

Mireku-North said she plans to have monthly or weekly meetings with law enforcement if she is elected in order to help dispel growing distrust between police and community members.

“I do see [that] the police department has done a great deal of work to engage the community and build relationships, and that’s the kind of work I hope to expand upon when elected,” she said.

DeGonia said he does not think there is adequate communication currently between the state’s attorney’s office and local law enforcement.

“It’s critically important that women and men who are working in law enforcement, be it Montgomery County police, state police, sheriffs, [or] city officers, understand the prosecution priorities of the office,” he said. “And we [must] work together to make sure we’re enforcing the laws that we all agree should be enforced … and [law enforcement has] discretion to divert more and charge less, and focus on the crimes that are really making a difference (violent crimes).”

McCarthy said he anticipates that an independent audit of his office that he commissioned last year will reveal more information about racial and ethnic disparities when it comes to who is charged criminally. The study is expected to last two years.

“When someone calls me in the middle of the night and is asking me at 3 o’clock in the morning about a particular case, they are talking about the facts of a case. I will tell you generally speaking, I don’t know the name of the person I’m talking about,” he said.  “Their ethnicity or race is not something you even discuss.”

“There is no question that there are racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system in terms of what we actually see. No one can say they’re not there. The question becomes, what are the factors [considered] to do whatever you do? Is it fair, is it not fair? Is it inequitable?”

Marijuana on the ballot

Maryland residents will vote on a ballot measure in the November general election that would legalize the use of recreational marijuana for people ages 21 and older.

McCarthy said he is optimistic that the cannabis measure will pass in November. He thinks legalization could potentially reduce street violence because the incentive for criminals to illegally sell the drug would be eliminated.

“If you said to the average person in Maryland, ‘If there’s a drug transaction that ends in violence, particularly death, what’s the drug involved?’ Somebody’s gonna say Fentanyl. Somebody’s gonna say opiates. Somebody’s gonna say cocaine. People don’t understand the violence that is associated” with marijuana, he said.

McCarthy added that he was one of the first prosecutors in Maryland to stop prosecuting simple possession of marijuana cases, meaning less than 10 grams.

“Right now less than 10 grams of marijuana is not criminal. And as a result you don’t have the right to search, to arrest or charge someone. So the mere odor of marijuana standing alone is not probable cause to arrest, search or stop anybody,” he said.

But Paylor says there needs to be better communication about the changing landscape when it comes to marijuana, and police need to be properly trained on any potential changes to the law concerning the drug.

“I think we have to be prepared if that [ballot measure] passes, because the odor of marijuana has traditionally been the basis for searches and seizures of persons. We’ve seen changes in case law, but today it’s still the basis for searches and seizures of vehicles,” he said.

Challengers want more programs, but McCarthy says they already exist

McCarthy’s three challengers in the race have consistently called for more diversion programs for youth as an alternative to incarceration, and more mental health resources in the county to address the social isolation many have experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Paylor has proposed a program similar to one used in Prince George’s County, in which first-time drug dealers are required to perform 280 hours of community service and the county pays for them to work toward an associate’s degree from Prince George’s Community College instead of receiving jail sentences.

“Once all of that is completed, they’re given a probation before judgment and their record is ultimately expunged, so that’s an example of how we get the accountability, but we also provide the support and give the person the opportunity to change their lives,” he said.

DeGonia said he doesn’t think the county’s mental health court, which handles cases involving people with mental illness who commit minor crimes, has enough resources to meet the community’s needs. He plans to make sure his staff work with the county’s Department of Health and Human Services on that issue.

“I’ve been to several meetings with students and they are crying out for those resources,” he said.

When asked about DeGonia’s criticism, McCarthy says it’s misplaced because he was involved in the implementation of mental health court in the county. He said more than 5,000 people are diverted out of the county’s criminal justice system through drug court, mental health court and other programs.

 “No jurisdiction in Maryland has anything close to what we have … . Find me a jurisdiction that has the diversity of programs that we have and the number of people that we take out of criminal justice prosecution so that they don’t get labeled criminals,” he said.

“I join them in saying I think it’s a huge issue, but I also say that I am the champion that brought us mental health court. This goes back seven, eight, 10 years I’ve been talking about the mental health issue.”

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com

Dan Schere

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com.