Centre County’s newest district attorney may only have been sworn in Friday morning, but he said he’s already been working to bring everyone onto the same page.
“The reality is we have to transition a large caseload with serious cases in the pipeline,” Bernie Cantorna said Wednesday in an interview with the CDT. “We’re going to address those as a priority and incrementally make changes over the next year to make the system work.”
Cantorna, a 19-year veteran of the Centre County legal system, ran unopposed in November’s general election, having previously beaten incumbent District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller in the primary election.
Having taken the election so early on, Cantorna said it gave him more than enough time to meet with the stakeholders in the system, including area police departments, chiefs, investigators and resource outlets. He said when he started the election, he ran on an idea that you’re not learning and growing unless you’re doing something every day that makes you uncomfortable.
“I think every day of that election process was doing something new and something uncomfortable,” he said. “I met a lot of great people, and unexpected things happened along the way.”
Cantorna said he’s already in talks with the staff at the DA’s office and expects a number of changes over the next six to 12 months. This includes filling four approved positions for new attorneys — a high priority, he said.
The first job, he said, is protecting the community and taking care of those cases who pose a risk, including four pending murder trials expected to be adjudicated next year.
“We’ve never had four murders pending in Centre County,” he said. “There are those four cases, as well as some serious sexual assaults to tackle at the front.”
Cantorna’s passion, he indicated, is with the juvenile system, though. As a mentor for high school and college athletes, he said he enjoys seeing young individuals grow as people and his greatest concern lies in the risks to their lives.
“Those are the cases where individuals are at risk,” he said, “and they’re at a point in time where the system is designed to stop the behavior and help them become something.”
The court has the opportunity to intervene in a young person’s life, he said, which is not often something it can do with an adult who is committing serious crimes. The juvenile system gives a chance for a minor to see an immediate impact of their actions, he said, and creates consequences in the person’s actual life.
“If we get lucky, if we do it right, we might not see someone return when they’re 19 or 20,” he said. “To me, the juvenile justice system is extremely important because it affects the real people and the real lives in Centre County.”
Ultimately, he said, it’s his job to restore the public’s trust in the DA’s office and court system in the county.
“The stated objective of this term was we were going to conduct ourselves explicitly so that we’re restoring the trust in our legal system,” Cantorna said. “That’s why I was elected.”