From left: Tom DeGonia, John McCarthy, Bernice Mireku-North, Perry Paylor. Credit: Candidate submitted photos

Editor’s note: With early voting starting July 7, Bethesda Beat will be running election wrap-ups of the races for Montgomery County offices and the General Assembly. Today we focus on the State’s Attorney’s race.

 With crime on the rise throughout Montgomery County, and across the country, attention on the state’s attorney race has grown. Four-term incumbent John McCarthy is seeking a fifth term and is being challenged by three candidates.

McCarthy, a Democrat, has not been challenged in a primary since he was first elected to the position in 2006. This year Tom DeGonia, Perry Paylor and Bernice Mireku-North are challenging him in the Democratic primary, all of whom are currently or have served as prosecutors in Maryland at some point.

Throughout the campaign, McCarthy has touted progress the county has made in reducing its jail population, providing alternatives to incarceration such as a mental health court and diversifying his office. However, his opponents do not agree that prosecutor’s office currently reflects the demographics  of the county and have argued that more can be done to reform the juvenile justice system, as well as provide more diversion programs.

The candidates have all proposed different ideas about how to reduce violent crime, with some calling for a gun safety task force, or putting one together in McCarthy’s case.

[For more information on candidates for local, state and federal races, check out the Bethesda Beat voters guide.]

No Republicans have filed for office in the July 19 primary.

Here are the Democratic candidates:

John McCarthy

McCarthy, 70, of Gaithersburg, was first elected state’s attorney 16 years ago, and had served as deputy state’s attorney for 10 years prior to that. McCarthy also has been an associate professor in Montgomery College’s paralegal studies program since 1985.

McCarthy, like many in the county, has expressed concern about the recent proliferation of guns in the county, particularly privately made firearms, or ghost guns, among youth. He has established a gun safety task force made up of prosecutors in his office and the county police department with the goal of obtaining more information about where the guns are coming from and who is involved.

McCarthy commissioned a two-year audit of his office last year to examine trends such as arrests, charges, plea offers, sentencing, racial and ethnic disparities in prosecutions and organizational and staff capacity.

In candidate forums and interviews, McCarthy often responds to criticism of his office by pointing out that the county, under his direction, has been ahead of the game when it comes to areas such as creating mental health and drug courts, ending the use of cash bond and not prosecuting cases of simple possession of marijuana (measuring less than 10 grams). Mental health and drug courts are intended to help people suffering from mental health issues and substance abuse disorders away from incarceration, and to reduce recidivism.

Tom DeGonia

DeGonia, 51, of Olney, is currently a Rockville attorney and previously was an assistant state’s attorney under McCarthy’s predecessor, Doug Gansler. He briefly considered challenging McCarthy in 2018, but ultimately decided not to due to personal and political considerations.

DeGonia has proposed his own firearm safety task force, which he says will involve members of the community, Montgomery County Public Schools and social services.

Additionally, DeGonia says he wants to employ a community-based prosecution model in which each of the six police district stations works with a senior prosecutor, school principals, nonprofit leaders and faith-based organizations.

Like the other challengers in the race, DeGonia also has been a proponent of more diversion programs for youth offenders in the county and more alternatives to incarceration.

DeGonia, in criticizing the state’s attorney’s office for its lack of representation, has suggested improving recruitment of prosecutors from minority backgrounds, particularly at historically black colleges and universities.

Bernice Mireku-North

Mireku-North, 40, worked as a prosecutor in Anne Arundel County for six years before going into private practice. She is currently a managing attorney at The North Law Group in Silver Spring. Mireku-North also recently served as a co-chair of County Executive Marc Elrich’s Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, which released a list of 87 recommendations for changes to policing in the county in February 2021.

During forums and interviews, Mireku-North has said the county prosecutor’s office needs to better reflect the diversity of the population. She says similar problems existed in Anne Arundel County when it came to representation.

Mireku-North says the state’s attorney’s office needs to be more transparent and rely more on data when it comes to making decisions on how to prosecute a case. She says she favors hiring at least one diversion coordinator and making sure that more alternatives to prosecution are explored.

If elected, Mireku-North says she plans to hire a data analyst to examine criminal justice from a race perspective.

Mireku-North says the experience of serving on the public safety task force has illuminated the need for more counselors and social workers in the county.

Perry Paylor

Paylor, 53, is deputy state’s attorney in Prince George’s County, and previously served as chief of the Guns and Drugs unit in the Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Office. He also owned and operated a private law practice for 14 years.

Paylor agrees that Montgomery County’s prosecutor’s office lacks diversity and has suggested hiring diverse staff members from local universities.

Paylor, like other challengers in the state’s attorney’s race, has emphasized the need for more diversion programs in the county. One that he specifically has referred to in interviews with Bethesda Beat is Prince George’s County’s “Back on Track” program for first-time drug dealers. Back On Track  includes a community service and workforce development component as an alternative to incarceration.

Paylor says troubled youth could benefit from interaction with violence interrupters – community members who have been impacted by violence and are familiar with problems in specific communities. Violence interrupters, who are sometimes former convicts, have spoken at schools in Prince George’s County as well as community events such as cookouts, and Paylor said he hopes to take a similar approach in Montgomery County.

When is the election?

The primary election is July 19. Early voting begins July 7. Mail-in ballots will be accepted as long as they are postmarked by 8 p.m. July 19 or are dropped into a ballot drop box by that time.

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

Dan Schere

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