Parks Miller, Cantorna Answer Voter Questions, Trade Criticisms
In what is easily the most contentious local race in this year's primary campaign, District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller and challenger Bernie Cantorna answered voter questions, and traded some barbs, at the League of Women Voters Candidates' Night on Wednesday at the State College Municipal Building.
Both are seeking the Democratic nomination in the May 16 election. Parks Miller is seeking her third term in office after first being elected in 2009 and spending 23 years as a prosecutor. Cantorna, meanwhile, has been a trial attorney for 27 years and started out his career as public defender before moving into private practice.
"I started my career as a public defender because I wanted to become a trial attorney and help people," Cantorna said. "I practice criminal law in the same courts with the same judges as my opponent. I know how to try a case."
He added that the DA is responsible for training new lawyers and pointed to his experience teaching law students. He also noted that in his roles as an assistant coach with the Penn State women's rugby team and coach of the State College girls rugby team he teaches and mentors and builds teams to work toward common goals. A former certified public accountant, he said he also has the skills needed for working with the county to create budgets.
Parks Miller countered that prosecutorial experience is vital to the position of DA, and that she has spent her career on the prosecution side. She said she won her first murder conviction in 1999 and has had five murder convictions since becoming Centre County's DA.
"This job is a very experience specific job. Nothing trains you to be a DA but being a DA," she said. "My opponent has not prosecuted a speeding ticket...No DA should practice on victims. My 23 year career, every single day has prepared me to be DA, for the last seven years and the next term."
Cantorna said a DA does not need to have spent a career in the office to be successful in the job. He pointed to Lycoming County DA Eric Linhardt who spent his career as a defense and civil attorney before being elected district attorney in 2008.
"He might be right that some defense attorneys become DAs but my opponent has only tried one case in the past seven years that was a criminal case," Parks Miller responded. "That’s his experience."
Asked about the qualities needed in hiring attorneys and retaining them on staff, Cantorna suggested the turnover rate in the DA's office has been too high during Parks Miller's tenure.
"We’ve lost 46 individuals in seven years," Cantorna said. "In the previous seven years [under] two previous district attorneys, only three employees left. That’s 15 times the turnover rate of the prior administration. You’re losing valuable people and you’re losing that experience. Just when lawyers are starting to be good at the job they’re seeking greener pastures."
Parks Miller said those numbers misrepresent the turnover in the DAs office and referred to the issue as part of "a whisper campaign" by Cantorna. She said that when she was first elected, she ran on a platform of reform and let go about a third of the office's staff on her first day and gradually replaced the rest. Along with a lack of pay raises in the county and the training her attorneys receive, the turnover is not unexpected, she said.
"The reality is I have excellent attorneys and excellent staff," she said. "The reality is the turnover is exactly the same in my office as it is in the sheriff’s office over the past few years. In fact when you take out the people I’ve let go, it’s much less. Because I train my staff so highly they tend to leave. We’ve produced great results and you can’t do that without an excellent team. And that’s the question, what are the results the district attorney is getting."
Even on areas of common ground, the candidates soon diverged.
Both agreed that plea agreements are necessary because the courts couldn't possibly bring the majority of cases to trial, and Cantorna noted the plea rate in the county is consistent with the national trend. They both said the end result is ensuring guilty parties take responsibility for their crimes.
Parks Miller said in plea agreements her office usually does not drop the most serious counts.
"The question for the community is do you like how the cases are being resolved," she said. "Do you think the people who are taking responsibility are taking responsibility for the right thing or is your DA dropping felonies all the time? When we do plea agreements we make sure the persons involved are held accountable for the highest crime they committed. That’s what a DA should do."
Cantorna took exception to that philosophy.
"There are going to be some significant differences for the folks out here voting on these issues," he said. "You don’t convict someone necessarily of the highest charge that’s been filed. You look at the individual, you look at the needs of the community, you look at the needs of the victim and ensure the underlying issues that caused the crime are being addressed, [and] if someone is capable of going out and having a productive life that we give them that opportunity."
On work-release and re-entry programs for those in county jail, Parks Miller said she is supportive of the programs and has worked to reform the system since taking office. She said that when she arrived violent offenders were being let out on work release.
"All that needed change and it was changed under my supervision," she said. "Not only do I support it, I reformed it so that it is now safe."
Cantorna, however, said all inmates in the county jail will be released, and too few are currently taking part in re-entry programs.
"We used to have 50 percent of the population on work release and they are supervised pretty strictly," he said.
He said that according to the county website, of 280 current inmates, only one was on work release and three on volunteer duty.
"That is not restoring justice," he said.
On protecting victims of sexual violence, Cantorna said as a father of two daughters and a coach of girls and women's teams, the issue is important to him.
"We need to aggressively and professionally prosecute those cases," he said. "When I say aggressively what I mean is if we think a crime has occurred and it's consistent with what’s in the interest of the victim and the community then we should file those charges and not worry about the certainty of conviction and let the court figure that out. Let the juries figure that out. When I say professionally I mean we need to listen to the victims and take their lives into account and ensure they have a voice and that we treat them with respect. Every time someone reports a crime of sexual violence it’s a win for the county and we need to encourage that."
Parks Miller replied that Cantorna's earlier response about pursuing the highest charges did not fit with protecting victims.
"He cannot be a proponent of victims rights when he comes with that attitude," Parks Miller said. "Recently the mayor of State College stood with him and said ‘Bernie understands that felony charges ruin lives.’ Guess who they were talking about? Defendants. I know who the DA works for. It’s crime victims. My office has [overhauled] how crime victims are treated, specifically sexual assault victims. We have great results, we have great outcomes and we treat sexual assault victims with dignity and we are very aggressive in those prosecutions."
In his closing statement, Cantorna pledged to work with law enforcement and advocacy groups to solve issues.
"We as a community need to know that system is going to be fair and will treat people with respect, that it is going to protect us and make our community better," he said. "The system cannot work unless it has integrity and the trust of the people. That’s why I am running for this office."
He also touted his endorsements from State College Mayor Elizabeth Goreham, former state Rep. Ruth Rudy and Bald Eagle Lodge #51 of the Fraternal Order of Police.
Parks Miller took issue with his FOP endorsement.
"He did not, by the way, get endorsement from the local police," she said. "The truth is about that meeting five out of six Centre County police departments voted against him... He’s being untruthful about it."
During her closing remarks, Parks Miller returned to the issue of experience.
"This whole entire election is about this: Who has the principles you want for DA and who has the experience?" she said. "This job is not a joke and it’s not a hobby. In a 23-year career I’ve been behind the helm of a prosecution desk... The reality is experience counts. I’m first on the ballot and first in experience. You will need a DA doing a murder trial this fall that’s done one before. DAs don’t practice on victims."
Also during her closing, Parks Miller called out some Cantorna supporters in the audience.
"His supporters are as devious as him in terms of they are sitting here mouthing mean things to me as I’m talking," she said. "Is that not just the sign of a campaign that is desperate."