The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Post endorses John McCarthy for Montgomery County State’s Attorney

Montgomery County State's Attorney John McCarthy outside of the Takoma Park Police Department on April 9, 2021 in Takoma Park, Md. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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One of Maryland’s most experienced and respected prosecutors, Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy, is running for reelection in the July 19 Democratic primary. His outstanding performance in the office he has held since 2007 — a record that has cemented his reputation as an energetic, thoughtful criminal justice reformer — is ample reason for county voters to support him. We endorse Mr. McCarthy for a fifth four-year term.

The winner of the primary will face no Republican opponent in the heavily Democratic county. As for Mr. McCarthy’s three primary rivals, all are progressives who favor reforms that would divert from incarceration of nonviolent and youthful offenders, drug users, and those suffering from mental health problems. All would lean into crime prevention, community outreach and racial equity.

Their dilemma is that Mr. McCarthy’s own achievements along those lines are impressive. His challengers say they would do more, or go faster, but they struggle to explain how. And while each has experience as a prosecutor, none offers a track record or breadth of expertise remotely approaching Mr. McCarthy’s.

At 70, he remains vigorous and proactive after four decades as a prosecutor, despite a battle with cancer a few years ago. As head of an office of roughly 150 people, half of them prosecutors, he has pioneered or dramatically expanded initiatives to give certain offenders — especially those who tend to pose little threat to others — a chance to right their lives. During his tenure, the number of inmates in the county jail has dropped by about one-quarter, even as Montgomery’s population has climbed by more than 10 percent.

Mr. McCarthy’s initiatives include starting a mental health court, despite pushback from the judiciary, which has enabled struggling offenders to get the help they need instead of sitting behind bars. He has championed a court for drug offenses that has provided a pathway for hundreds of users to get back on their feet through intensive, long-term treatment. Through community service programs expanded under his watch, thousands of other offenders are diverted from incarceration annually. In addition, he launched and vastly expanded a program in middle schools to tackle truancy before it becomes an ingrained habit for preteens and younger adolescents.

Mr. McCarthy also commissioned a sweeping study of his office by outside experts — a project many elected prosecutors would vehemently resist — to identify and address racial equity in criminal justice. He has pledged to make the findings public when they are available next year, and post them online going forward, which is evidence of his commitment to transparency.

None of his opponents match his stature. Among them, Perry Paylor, a deputy state’s attorney in Prince George’s County, is qualified on paper but vague about how he would do the job. Tom DeGonia, a former Montgomery felony prosecutor, is capable; however, little seems to distinguish his agenda from programs Mr. McCarthy has already developed. Bernice Mireku-North co-chaired a county criminal justice reform study that recommended, among other things, lessening the police presence in some of Montgomery’s highest-crime areas, a poor idea. A former prosecutor in Anne Arundel County, she is promising but has never handled major felonies and lacks the experience to run an office of Montgomery’s size and scope.

Mr. McCarthy deserves reelection.