It's bad news for criminals. It's good news for those who believe in the fair and prompt administration of criminal justice. Northampton County District Attorney Terry Houck, who has over 45 years of experience as both a cop and prosecutor, announced yesterday that he is seeking re-election. (You can read his statement below).
Houck made his announcement over the noon hour at the courthouse rotunda. He was surprised and gratified when a large portion of his staff (assistant DAs, detectives and clerks) came and stood behind him. He's been accused by opponent Steve Baratta of "permitting a toxic office environment for both staff attorneys and supporting administrative staff which [has] resulted in significant turnover, especially of female employees." The presence of so many prosecutors at Houck's campaign kickoff belies any suggestion of a morale problem. Houck's office is fully staffed. Three of his top four deputies happen to be women.
|DA Terry Houck|
Unlike most DA offices statewide, Houck kept the doors open during the pandemic, and continued trying cases. President Judge Michael J Koury and Executive Lamont McClure also should be credited with this "business as usual" approach. Other counties fell behind, but Northampton County was recognized by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC) as the most efficient in the state in its handling of criminal cases.
According to the AOPC, Northampton County has the most efficient numbers for criminal case management in terms of the highest percentage of cases disposed of within both 180 days (71 percent) and 365 days (93 percent) from the time of filing. It also has the lowest number of days from filing to disposition, 129 days. DA Houck's conviction rate is about 90%.
Houck created a full-time Drug Task Force, manned by trained detectives, to both investigate and prosecute drug dealers who sell drugs like heroin laced with fentanyl. He sued big pharma and won a $2 million (and counting) settlement. He joined a Child Advocacy Center that gives abused children a comfortable and safe place to discuss their victimization. He assigned an Assistant District Attorney to participate in the county's problem-solving courts, which has reduced recidivism. He has conducted several gun buyback programs, which has taken 300 guns and hundreds of pounds of ammo off the streets.
Future plans include a Human Trafficking Task Force to prosecute those involved in the trafficking and abuse of vulnerable women. In addition, he is establishing a Violent Crimes Task Force manned by the "best and brightest" officers to assist smaller departments confronted by violent crime.
After announcing his re-election plans, Houck took questions from reporters about the complaints from opponent Steve Baratta, who was himself a judge until the end of last year.
Houck defended the practice of permitting full-time assistants to work part-time in civil practice or unrelated fields. He noted the pay for a full-time assistant is very low, and allowing unrelated outside employment is a way to retain experienced prosecutors. "There is no conflict of interest with anything anybody does here. They all put in a ton of hours." He said that a Bucks County prosecutor doing part-time work was terminated because he was double-dipping, getting paid by the county and a private entity for the same hours.
Northampton County Drug Court is one of Northampton County's problem-solving courts. Baratta describes it as "a pretrial diversion plan that offers an opportunity for users to avoid incarceration so long as the participants enter a drug treatment program and remain sober." This is incorrect. Drug Court is actually a post conviction court in Northampton County. Baratta argues that Houck, and apparently DA John Morganelli before him, have created "arbitrary barriers to deny entry into these programs." But Houck explained yesterday that he actually wants to convert Drug Court into a pretrial diversion plan to prevent users from being stained with a criminal conviction for an addiction. He is working with the courts to make that happen.
Baratta also complains that prosecutions for possession of a small amount of marijuana have "clogged Northampton County's courts," destroying the future of many young adults. Houck responds that the legislature, and not he, is responsible for changing laws. But he denied these prosecutions have "clogged" the courts because they are diverted, either through summary citations at the magisterial level or through a first offender program that dismisses the charges.
On his webpage, Houck outlines in detail his positions on protection of child victims, community outreach, diversionary programs (problem solving courts), victims' rights, training, gun violence, a violent crimes task force and a full-time drug task force.
Houck has been married for 44 years, has two daughters and one grandchild.
As someone who worked his way up from a street cop in Philadelphia, earning my undergraduate, Masters, and law degree all at night, and as a result of my over 45 years in law enforcement as both a police officer and prosecutor, I have learned a few things about the nature of this work.
This job is not a birthright; it is not something you attempt to pad a pension on. To get this job and to be effective in it, you must earn it. In order to fully understand this job, you must sit with victims and their families; you must spend years working with police to effectively and efficiently investigate complaints of crime. You work nights and weekends, going to scenes and digging for evidence. You must train and be trained. You must dedicate your life to advocating for victims and for justice.
That is why this is more than just a job to me; it is who I am and what I have dedicated my life to. It is why I humbly believe I deserve to be reelected. It is also why I have repeatedly said I will never leave this job to seek another elected office, whether it is with the courts or the legislature. I pledge I will not quit the job in which I was elected to chase money or publicity. I am a proud and dedicated prosecutor.
When I was sworn in as District Attorney on January 6, 2020, we had no idea the adversity a global pandemic would soon cause. Although our world changed dramatically, for the Northampton County District Attorney’s Office it was business as usual. While the county offices were closed, law enforcement remained open and vigilant. We pushed to move forward with criminal jury trials in the interests of justice and as a result we have been recognized as the most efficient county in Pennsylvania as it pertains to the handling of our cases.
In addition, during the pandemic, I continued to serve the residents of Northampton County by creating a Community Outreach Program. This unprecedented level of transparency has helped educate our citizens on issues of the day. This program continues in effect and has, as of this date, been a part of over sixty appearances with this office participating or lecturing on such topics as sensible gun laws, concealed carry, opioid detection and abuse, community block watch, children in crises, senior expos and teenage job shadows, to name a few.
One of the promises I made upon election to my first term was to do everything in my power to eradicate the opioid abuse problem, and I attacked this issue in an unprecedented way through several avenues. For the first time in this county’s history, I created a full time Drug Task Force, which consists of trained detectives dedicated solely to the job of investigating and eliminating drug distribution sources and dealers. In addition, this task force has seized and forfeited hundreds of thousands of dollars in money and property, which was used to fund the ongoing investigations against these drug dealers. In other words, we turn the illicit profit of drug dealers against them to further our investigations.
Moreover, I was the first Northampton County District Attorney to go after big pharma and to date, have won a settlement of over $2M and counting. That money has been released to our Drug and Alcohol section of Human Services to put toward drug abatement programs. Finally, this office has sponsored a drug awareness video involving Northampton County residents who battled addiction. The documentary portrays the heartbreak and triumph of people who suffered from addiction as well as their families. It is a powerful and impactful video that will hopefully be shown in all of our schools.
In spite of the 20-month pandemic, this office accomplished so many more “firsts”: We joined a Child Advocacy Center that tends to the needs of abused children, giving them a safe and comfortable space to report and discuss their victimization, while at the same time increasing the effectiveness of the police investigation. With the help and cooperation of our local police, we conducted the first of several gun buybacks at two separate locations, which ultimately removed over 300 firearms and hundreds of pounds of ammunition off our streets. I am convinced this community, police, and District Attorney cooperative effort saved the life or lives of those that would have otherwise been involved in an accidental, reckless, or intentional shooting.
In 2014, The District Attorney’s office, along with the County Executive and the Courts, created the concept of problem-solving courts for nonviolent offenders. Immediately after I was elected, I expanded its reach by dedicating a full time Assistant District Attorney to sit on the panel. When this was done, it allowed for statewide certification, which in turn created new funding sources for the program. Today, these courts are servicing more people in need than ever before. It also is cutting down on our recidivism rate.
With the unprecedented level of cooperation from police I receive due to my background and experience, along with our continued vigilance and dedication, we have seen an overall decrease in crime in Northampton County. With that said, we must remain diligent. In the next several weeks I will be unveiling both a Human Trafficking Task force that will work with local police and the Department of Homeland Security, as well as a Violent Crimes Task force comprised of the best and brightest police officers and State Police our county has to offer. These task forces will stand ready to assist smaller, less equipped departments when and if the situation arises and a violent crime occurs. We will now, for the first time, also be equipped to immediately respond to catastrophic incidents. Although we hope and pray this response will not be needed, we will stand ready and prepared.
It is for these reasons the people of Northampton County require and deserve a dedicated professional with a lifelong commitment to law enforcement. It is the reason I continue to receive unwavering police support from the rank in file to the chiefs. We are all committed to keeping you safe and saving lives. That is why I am humbly asking for you to allow me to continue in another term the work I started when you elected me your District Attorney in 2019.