STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (WTAJ)– Last week, Judge Carmine Prestia Jr.’s courtroom looked a bit different, compared to its usual appearance.
Festive decorations throughout the courtroom, and office space of Magisterial District Court 49-1-01 in State College were the result of a holiday goodbye party.
Many longtime friends and family were present to reminisce and thank a man some have called a State College institution.
“My whole life here has been one kind of service or another in the community,” Prestia said.
He began working for State College Police in 1970, serving in the department for 25 years where he spent some time as second-in-command.
Prestia then moved a couple blocks down the street when he was elected Magisterial District Judge, handling court cases for part of State College (including portions of the downtown area). He’s held this position for 24 years.
“It’s been rewarding. I tell people this job as Magisterial District Judge has probably been the best job I’ve every had. I felt like I was doing good things, and I felt the community appreciated it. That’s the best I can ask for,” Prestia said.
He told WTAJ that a lot has changed during his time in Happy Valley. Police calls and detective work used to be sparse over the summers when students went home. But, now he says State College Borough is beginning to look more like a full-fledged city.
“It’s busy all the time,” Prestia said.
Adding: “Now we see the downtown is developing in a much more cosmopolitan manner. We’ve got high rises and much greater density. Criminal things have risen. The single biggest concern has always been alcohol use and abuse. That’s still a problem. I don’t think it was as much of a problem when I started… it’s gotten worse.”
Judge Prestia says it’s only natural to see a slight increase in crime with population growth… though he says there are certain cases growing in frequency that simply bother him.
“The other problem I’ve seen, which I think is more disturbing [compared to alcohol] is a lack of responsibility on people’s parts. It seems much easier for people to steal someone’s credit card and use it. Take their roommates bike or steal a bicycle. I’ve never understood where that comes from,” Prestia said.
Throughout his time as District Judge, Prestia’s arraigned those accused of homicide, drunk driver’s who’ve hit pedestrians, and has recently overseen hearings in the Beta Theta Pi fraternity hazing case.
While these cases may be more memorable in the eyes of the public, Prestia says there’s a different set of cases that have given him the most pride.
“Those that stick with me most are when something meaningful happened,” he said referencing situations where he made a positive impact on someone’s life through assigning community service (and other sentences).
One place he feels is effective in helping delinquents is the Alpha Fire Company.
“There’s been a number of young people who’ve gone over there and done well, and walked away with a different approach,” Prestia said.
The Alpha Fire Station is a familiar spot to Prestia who’s served as a volunteer there for 47 years. It’s a calling he says runs in the family.
“If you add up all the years, we probably have a century of service,” he said referencing his father’s, brother’s, and sons’ service.
Service he views as an obligation.
“I have a firm belief that you owe something to the community. I’m paid for my work here, I was paid for my work as a police officer. But, the fire company is something I’ve done to give back to the community,” Prestia said.
He added that he will dedicate more time to the department upon retirement… echoing his philosophy that one doesn’t need a robe and gavel to make a difference in the community.
More on Judge Prestia: ‘Do the right thing for the right reasons’
What are Judge Prestia’s plans for retirement?
“My wife and I have grandchildren… we’d like to spend a little more time with them. I won’t have to be on-call, so there should be little interference,” he said.
Who’s the next Judge in Magisterial District Court 49-1-01?
Taking Prestia’s place in January is former State College Mayor Donald Hahn. When asked if he has any advice to pass onto Hahn, Prestia’s message was simple but mighty.
“Do the right thing for the right reasons… that’s the best advice you can give anybody,” he said.
Regardless of the specifics of any case, Prestia said one principle trumps the rest:
“Be fair… everybody gets the chance to state their side. Make sure people feel like they’ve been heard. Then you make your decision. I’ve found that most people respect that whether the decision goes their way or not, they’re okay with the fact that you heard them out.”
While Prestia will no longer bring court into session, the ideals he embodied will live on with the lives he impacted… showing that his gavel and powerful baritone will long resound throughout Happy Valley.