Credit: File photos

This story was updated at 3:30 p.m. Feb. 15, 2022, to correct a reference to Karla Smith.

Facing three Democratic challengers in this year’s primary, Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy said Monday that his office has made significant progress in diversity.

But his opponents insisted that McCarthy’s office still is not representative of the county’s population.

McCarthy, a four-term incumbent who was first elected in 2006, is running for a fifth term in the June 28 Democratic primary. His challeners are Rockville attorney and former Montgomery County prosecutor Tom DeGonia, Silver Spring attorney and former Anne Arundel County prosecutor Bernice Mireku-North and Prince George’s County Deputy State’s Attorney Perry Paylor.

The filing deadline for candidates was extended last week from Feb. 22 to March 22. No Republicans have filed to run for state’s attorney.

All four state’s attorney candidates spoke Monday during a virtual forum hosted by the District 18 Democratic Breakfast Club — a group that hosts a monthly lecture, often by a county or state elected official.

When organizer Susan Heltemes asked the candidates to discuss their thoughts on diversity and equity in the office, DeGonia said there needs to be better job of recruiting prosecutors from minority backgrounds, especially at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

“We have to go out and find the applicants, and I’m committed to going to our HBCUs, our Black law student and Latino law student societies at all of our local law schools,” he said.

“People deserve to be prosecuted and represented by people who look and act like them, and by people who come from the same types of backgrounds and have the same experiences that they do.”

McCarthy gently pushed back, saying that 65% of the attorneys in his office are women and 75% of his staff. He said his office recruits from HBCUs and has worked hard to recruit from minority populations.

“You talk about historical dedication to diversity reflected in the community. The first African American woman who ever went on the [District Court] bench in Montgomery County was Karla Smith, who headed my family unit,” he said. “There are two Hispanic Americans that are on the bench in Montgomery County. [District Court Judge] Victor Del Pino, who’s one of the younger judges over there, I gave him his first job.

Smith was the first Black woman appointed a District Court judge in Montgomery County. She is now a Circuit Court judge. Circuit Court Judge Sharon Burrell is the first Black woman to be appointed a judge in the county. 

“Last week, we had a historic moment in the appellate court, where the first Asian American woman in the history of Maryland made it to the Court of Special Appeals. I hired her right out of law school. The reality is the rhetoric does not match the reality ….”

Mireku-North, who is Black, said diversity was lacking when she worked in the Anne Arundel County prosecutor’s office.

“We’re dealing with a system that inherently is unjust, and we have people of color like myself that want to see fairness and want to see justice. And having prosecutors that have that mindset, it’s very critical,” she said.

Paylor, who also is Black, agreed that Montgomery County lacks enough diversity in the state’s attorney’s office.

“If you look at our law schools, George Mason [University] to the schools in D.C., all the way up to Baltimore, we have the most diverse candidates in the country. But that’s not reflected in the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office. But that’s gonna change …,” he said.

The candidates also answered questions about their positions on “ghost” guns, school resource officers (SROs) and improvements to the juvenile justice system, among other topics during Monday’s forum.

All four agreed that legislation at the state level is needed to crack down on ghost guns, which are privately made, untraceable firearms, especially in the wake of last month’s shooting at Magruder High School. Police have said the alleged shooter used a ghost gun.

The four candidates differed, however, on whether SROs should be brought back into schools.

Paylor said the decision is up to the school board and the police department, but he wants to see improved dialogue about the issue.

“What I’ve found is that there’s a lot of isolation. Some folks don’t want SROs. Some folks want SROs. What’s more important is that our parents, students and faculty, that their voices are heard,” he said.

Mireku-North, who co-chaired the county executive’s Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, said the emphasis should instead be on getting more young people to go into social work and counseling fields.

“With children, counseling and social work for youth is very difficult to get into,” she said. “People don’t want that stress. But what could happen possibly at the federal level is creating a program where there’s incentive for people to get into that field, so we can have mental health counselors that the youth [are] looking for and not cops. And that’s why returning SROs to the school isn’t the way we should be going forward.”

McCarthy said there needs to be a community conversation about SROs, but noted that a vote among 26 high school principals in the county was unanimously in favor of keeping officers in schools.

“I think we need to listen to the parents and listen to the community on these particular issues. I don’t think we paid attention initially when we made this decision,” he said.

When the candidates were asked about changes they would make to the county’s juvenile justice system, the three challenger candidates advocated for reforms such as restorative justice and diversion programs.

DeGonia said the focus needs to be on making sure children are diverted from the criminal justice system at the outset.

“We have a vastly disproportionate impact on our children of color, and we have to think about children first, he said.

The challengers also raised the question of whether children as young as 15 and 16 should be charged as adults for crimes.

McCarthy responded by noting that Maryland law requires a minor to be initially charged as an adult if they commit a crime that would carry a life prison sentence.

“There’s a laundry list of children that have to be charged as adults by law. There’s no discretion for the state’s attorney,” he said. “The first thing that has to happen is, and I support this, the legislature needs to take action.”

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