For the first time in a decade, Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger (D) will have a Republican opponent to campaign against — if he can beat Robbie Leonard (D) in the 2022 primary election.
“My priority in running for state’s attorney is having a fair, transparent and accountable criminal justice system in the State’s Attorney’s Office — things that we don’t have here,” Leonard said.
A tough-on-crime Democrat, Shellenberger will square up against the young, self-described “progressive” attorney and secretary of the Maryland Democratic Party at the polls in July.
“This is a big job and I certainly think that I’ve proven over the years that I’m up to continuing to do it,” said Shellenberger.
The Republican candidates are James Haynes, a retired attorney who previously worked as an administrative judge for the U.S. Department of Labor and at the state attorney general and public defender offices, and Deborah Hill, who has represented state employee retirees in a lawsuit challenging a reduction in their prescription drug benefits.
In the Democratic primary, Leonard has garnered an impressive list of endorsements so far, including from the Teacher’s Association of Baltimore County, Our Revolution, The Working Families Party, Progressive Maryland, CASA in Action and several labor unions. He was also given the Gun Sense Candidate distinction from Moms Demand Action to End Gun Violence.
Leonard has been a practicing attorney for 15 years and served as a public defender in Baltimore City. Last summer, he represented unemployed Marylanders who successfully challenged Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s attempt to end an enhanced federal benefit program early.
Throughout his career, Leonard said he’s represented minors and adults and served on the public defender’s government relations team, where he testified on bills in the legislature.
“I was always on the opposite side of every issue from the current Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger,” he said. “I always wondered, like, how is this state’s attorney a Democrat? … He’s always opposing legislation being put in by Democrats.”
Shellenberger has frequently opposed progressive criminal justice legislation in Annapolis.
Shellenberger said while he often testifies in opposition to the bills as drafted, he supports “reasonable reforms.” He harkened back to the 2015 Maryland Second Chance Act and the 2016 Justice Reinvestment Act, both of which he supported.
“This concept that I’m against everything and we have to throw everybody in jail — I just think if people really dig into my record they would find that there’s a lot there,” he said.
Leonard said the incumbent’s opposition to local police reform policies mobilized him to challenge Shellenberger. He said that 52 Baltimore County residents testified in favor of the legislation at a public hearing. Only Shellenberger and the Fraternal Order of Police appeared in opposition, according to Leonard.
“I had known for over a decade who Scott was and what he stood for, … but it was at that moment that I realized how out of touch he is with the people that he’s supposed to be representing and how out of touch he is in the pursuit of justice and fairness,” he said.
Shellenberger has a close relationship with the Baltimore County Police Department, which has been questioned in the past.
In mid-May, New York Magazine published a piece detailing an ongoing federal lawsuit against Shellenberger and other officials in which sexual assault survivors have alleged that their rights were violated and the investigation of their cases mishandled.
One plaintiff, Anna Borkowski, told the magazine that Shellenberger sent three members of the Baltimore County Police Department to her grandmother’s house in Baltimore City, which is out of their jurisdiction, to tell her to stop attempting to file charges against her assailants.
The article’s title is a quote from Leonard about mishandled sexual assault cases in the county: “We don’t know how many women are out there like that.”
According to a 2019 Baltimore Sun report, the Baltimore County Sexual Assault Investigations Task Force found that county police seldom tested evidence from sexual assault cases.
Leonard said he wants to “take most of the blame away from the police department” in regard to how it handles rape allegations “because they’re really just following the directions of Mr. Shellenberger.”
“The police department shrugs off and blows off so many claims of rape and sexual assault because they know that there’s no point in arresting someone because Mr. Shellenberger is just going to dismiss the case,” he alleged.
Shellenberger said that when the county began collecting test kit evidence, they “had to make priorities as to which kits would be tested.” For example, kits went untested in cases where both parties knew each other “because identification wasn’t an issue,” he explained.
In 2019, state and local lawmakers passed bills to fund testing of previously untested kits and set standards for testing kits in the future.
Shellenberger said that older kits are currently being tested — “even in cases where it wasn’t stranger-on-stranger.” Thus far, 400 older kits have been tested and 300 more are on deck.
“We have a very robust program that’s been going on for a couple years now to get caught up on this, so I think I think we’re doing a better job there,” he said.
Shellenberger also refuted the notion that he is too close with the county’s Fraternal Order of Police, saying he has a list of 18 police officers — including the organization’s past president — that his office has prosecuted in the past few years.
Prioritizing violent crime
If re-elected, Shellenberger plans to prioritize prosecuting violent crime, which has been on the rise in Baltimore County.
Leonard agreed that crime needs to be addressed and that residents feel unsafe. “… At the same time, they see that there’s no accountability in the police department, and there’s no accountability in the State’s Attorney’s Office,” he said.
Leonard said that transparency and accountability mean prosecuting violent crimes “where there’s actual victims” — not “quality of life offenses,” like charges that stem from poverty or drug use.
Shellenberger is of the mindset that all laws should be enforced.
“That doesn’t mean that … everybody goes to jail,” he said. “… It’s important for the courts to get involved so that they can assist defendants in getting the help that they need, sometimes by making it a condition of probation.”
Leonard said that incarceration for drug offenses and prostitution doesn’t work. If elected, he plans to partner with state and local agencies and nonprofits to get people help rather than introducing them to the criminal justice system.
Shellenberger’s tactic is to lean on the justice system.
“The way we catch defendants who are guilty of human trafficking is to make an arrest in a prostitution case,” said Shellenberger, who clarified that that “doesn’t mean that that person needs to be prosecuted for prostitution.”
Leonard said arresting possible human trafficking victims preposterous.
“How crazy is that?” he said. “Imagine any other victim of a crime where we would say, ‘in order to capture the real bad guy, we need to lock you up, put handcuffs on you and make you stand in front of a judge.’”
“That’s insane,” he continued.
Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report.