Democratic Primary to Replace Northampton DA  John Morganelli Takes Form

The county’s first deputy DA and chief public defender are running in the May 21 primary

John Morganelli, the longtime district attorney of Northampton County in eastern Pennsylvania, announced this month that he will not seek re-election in November. Morganelli’s first deputy DA, Terry Houck, and the county’s chief public defender, Nuria DiLuzio, have both announced they will seek the Democratic nomination to replace him in the May 21 primary.

Morganelli, a Democrat known for “tough on crime” politics and hardline stances on immigration, was first elected DA in 1991. That means he oversaw county prosecutions in an era of growing incarceration nationwide. But while Pennsylvania’s statewide incarceration rate grew by 97 percent between 1991 and 2017 according to the Annual Statistical Report released each year by the state’s Department of Corrections, it grew by 364 percent in Northampton County. And the number of people from the county admitted to prison in a given year increased by 842 percent, even while the county’s population grew by 47 percent.

Morganelli’s office responded via email about the role that he thinks prosecutorial policies played in this growth, saying that “any increase in incarceration rates was due primarily to mandatory sentencing laws that increased substantially in the 1990’s” under Republican Governor Tom Ridge.” The office added that “the DA has little to do with the ultimate sentence imposed. Judges sentence, not DAs. We do not believe that any ‘policy’ of the DA contributed in any significant [ways] to incarceration rates.” The office further touted the DA’s efforts to promote “diversion programs–like expanding the ARD program to allow felony cases into the program. He also led the fight for a Mental Health Court which was implemented at his insistence, and supported the Drug Court. All designed to reduce prison population.”

A past president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, Morganelli has defended mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines and pushed back on efforts to scale them back. He has argued to “warehouse … young criminals who are on our streets with guns” during “their crime years, which is (ages) 14 to 35.” He is also a prominent defender of capital punishment and a critic of Governor Tom Wolfe’s moratorium on executions. In recent years, he has advocated for prosecutors to use Pennsylvania’s “drug delivery resulting in death” charge against people who have sold drugs tied to a fatal overdose; such prosecution, which can lead to a sentence of decades in prison in Pennsylvania, is on the rise nationwide and Morganelli sees it as essential to fighting the crisis in substance abuse. Since becoming DA, Morganelli lost four elections for attorney general and he also lost the Democratic primary in a U.S. House race in 2018; during that latter race, past positions on immigration, including defending local raids and the denial of driver’s licenses, became a campaign issue.

Terry Houck, the county’s first deputy DA, announced his bid on Jan. 23 in a statement in which he described himself as a “true advocate for victims.” He told the LehighValleyLive.com that the impetus behind his candidacy was to “fight for and give a voice to the innocent victims in Northampton County.” The same press release announcing his candidacy also announces an endorsement by the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge of Easton, Pennsylvania. I asked Houck whether there are aspects of the county system that he believes need overhaul, and whether he views criminal justice reform or mass incarceration as part of his candidacy impetus. In an email response, a spokesperson emphasized continuity with programs already in place and described a desire to deemphasize incarceration for offenses considered to be low-level and non-violent. “The safety of the community has always been his highest priority,” he said via email. “That has meant the fullest prosecution for violent offenders, abusers, and those that victimize the vulnerable. It has also meant working to evolve the role of the prosecutor and the larger justice system in cases where incarceration creates more problems than it solves. Terry has helped bolster diversionary courts that deal specifically with mental health and opioid substance abuse.” The spokesperson added in a follow-up that Houck “will continue to bolster these programs and recognize that the resources of the District Attorney’s office should be used to genuinely make Northampton safer and stand up for victims of violent crime, not to push low-level offenders from vulnerable populations into incarceration or further into crime.”

Also running is Nuria DiLuzio, who heads the county’s public defender’s office and whose campaign launch event on Jan. 14 featured many prominent local politicians, according to the blog Lehigh Valley Ramblings. DiLuzio’s campaign released a statement on Jan. 18 that emphasizes a commitment to fairness, integrity, and “the rights of all involved.” It does not mention specific problems she sees in the county’s criminal justice system, or reforms that she would implement. DiLuzio did not respond to multiple requests for comment on her views about criminal justice reform.

The filing deadline for new candidates is in March, so other Democrats could still announce bids. Tom Carroll, a former assistant prosecutor and the Lehigh Valley Tea Party chairman, is running in the Republican primary, where he could have competition. The Political Report will return to this election in the months ahead.