2022 | Courts

State’s Attorney candidates discuss local crime spikes, juvenile justice and the role of data in criminal justice reform

Four-term incumbent McCarthy faces off against three challengers in Silver Spring forum

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From left, Montgomery County State's Attorney candidates Tom DeGonia, John McCarthy, Bernice Mireku-North and Perry Paylor speak at a forum Thursday night in Silver Spring.

Photo by Dan Schere

Concerns over a recent spike in violent crime in Montgomery County, changes to handling juvenile cases and a debate over how to use data in criminal justice reform are among the issues  raised by candidates running for Montgomery County State’s Attorney during a forum in Silver Spring.

The forum, hosted Thursday night by the Montgomery County Women’s Democratic Club, featured all four Democrats who are running in the July 19 primary; no Republicans are running. Incumbent State’s Attorney John McCarthy, who is seeking a fifth four-year term, 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

During the two-hour forum, moderator Rashawn Ray asked the candidates how they would use the office to reduce violent crime in the county, citing a recent uptick in murders, shootings, carjackings and other types of incidents crimes in the county.  

McCarthy said the jail population and crime rate in the county had decreased significantly during his time as state’s attorney, but he noted the recent crime spike has occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic – a period when students have not always had in-person learning.

“Some of those numbers have abated, particularly in the area of carjackings as the kids have gone back to school,” he said.

Mireku-North said downtown Silver Spring and Germantown are the two “hot button areas” where crime has gone up recently. She worries that the minority populations in those regions don’t “feel heard by the justice system.”

“They’re feeling desperate, so they’re not understanding how to handle the tough times we’ve just pulled ourselves out of,” she said.

Mireku-North added that she would try to increase the diversity of staff in the state’s attorney’s office in order to ensure it is reflective of the community it represents.

Paylor said he would advocate for more diversion programs in the county, and more extracurricular programs such as those offered by the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, a national organization with local chapters that provides after-school programs.

“COVID just explodes the problem,” he said. “We have a group of young people that have gone two years without supervised activity. I would use my office as state’s attorney to advocate for more activities.”

DeGonia said he’s talked with business owners in Silver Spring whose establishments have been damaged by gunshots, as well as local faith leaders. He said the key is for the state’s attorney to talk with leaders in the community.

“We have to [work] together, and we have to get out of the courthouse and into the community,” he said.

The subject of requiring cash for bail arose multiple times during the debate, and McCarthy emphasized each time that Montgomery County has ended the practice (other methods to post bail include by credit card, debit card, property bail or a professional bail bondsperson). Cash bail is often criticized because of its disproportionate impact on the poor, particularly people of color.

McCarthy credited Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh with moving the state away from practice of requiring cash bond overall, and said the county was one of the first jurisdictions in the state to stop using it.

“In many of these instances where these things are brought up, you’re creating an issue for Montgomery County that we don’t have. We passed this many, many years ago,” he said.

Most bond review hearings, McCarthy noted, usually involve a conversation between the county Department of Correction and Rehabilitation and the judge in assessing the risk of releasing a defendant.

“The only time people are detained is when they pose a risk to public safety,” he said.

All of the candidates agreed there should be no cash bond, but some wanted to go a step further. DeGonia said he wants more transparency when it comes to deciding which defendants are held.

“It has to be written down. You can’t make a policy and say, ‘This is our policy.’ Write the policy down. That is transparency. Who is held pretrial? Why are they held pretrial?” he said.

Mireku-North acknowledged that McCarthy was correct about cash bond not being used in the county, but said many defendants are held with no bond without regard to their financial circumstances.

“We have to have a situation where we understand the socioeconomic conditions of the accused,” she said. Mireku-North said there needs to be more dialogue between pretrial services and the public defender’s office when making a recommendation for a defendant.

Mireku-North added that some defendants with prior convictions may be less inclined to attend their court hearing for their current case. She did not elaborate on the reasons the reasons for this trend.

“That’s another element to be considered. That’s still no excuse for criminalizing poverty,” she said.

All of the candidates agreed on the importance of using racial and ethnic data when considering incarceration rates and sentencing. McCarthy pointed to an independent review of his office that he announced last year, which is being conducted by instructors from the University of Maryland and Florida International University. The audit covers areas such as racial disparities in charges, plea offers and sentencing, as well as issues such as office staffing, timeliness and ethics. The study began last year and is expected to last two years.

Mireku-North said if elected, she plans to hire a data analyst to look at criminal justice from the perspective of race.

“When we’re talking about charges involved, that is the power of the prosecutor,” she said. “And if we don’t have an equity-minded person making those decisions on the charges, then we’re gonna perpetuate the problem of distrust in the county about the criminal justice system.”

Paylor said he also would hire a data specialist, and said he has experience in working with government officials to deliver needed funding from his current job in Prince George’s County.

“This question comes down to the budget,” he said. “You have to have experience dealing with the executive and the council to get your budget passed and include a data specialist. You need to have a data specialist.”

DeGonia said he too would collect data on the race, age and length of sentences for defendants.

“I’m in the jail. I’m in the juvenile detention center, and I can tell you there’s a disproportionate impact,” he said. “The question is, what do we do with that data? What do we do with that information?”

The candidates challenging McCarthy said during the forum the criminal justice system needs more diversion programs for youth. Paylor said he would implement a program similar to the Back on Track Program spearheaded by Vice President Kamala Harris when she was the district attorney in San Francisco, which was aimed at reducing recidivism among non-violent drug offenders.

The candidates also discussed their view on whether juveniles should be charged as adults for serious crimes. McCarthy noted the state’s attorney’s office does not have control over how juveniles are initially charged because state law mandates that juveniles be charged as adults for certain crimes.

In Maryland, juveniles age 14 and older charged with first-degree murder, first-degree rape or first-degree sex offense are automatically charged as adults, although the case can later be transferred to the juvenile system.

Mireku-North said she does not think juveniles should be prosecuted as adults. And Paylor and DeGonia pointed out that prosecutors have discretion in determining whether a case remains in adult court or goes to juvenile court.

“When I was representing a young man who was charged as an adult for a fight with his stepfather and he was held in an adult jail, I can tell you no one benefits from that,” DeGonia said. “And I had to fight at the waiver hearing to get it back into juvenile court.”

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