The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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April 19, 2014

Crime board took aim at house

JOHNSTOWN — Johnstown’s unemployment rate is around 8 percent.

One-third of the city’s population lives in poverty.

Burglaries and assaults significantly increased between 2010 and 2012. There is a thriving illegal trade in heroin and prescription drugs.

Given those conditions, it can be challenging for Johnstown Community Corrections Center residents to find jobs when living in the facility or to avoid falling back into a criminal lifestyle upon their release.

Last year, the ad hoc Johnstown Crime and Violence Commission, chaired by state Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Johnstown, suggested relocating the facility.

“Due to the current economic climate, high unemployment rates, and the drain on human services in the County, we recommend the State of Pennsylvania reposition the Johnstown Community Correction (sic) Center to a more vibrant community that would afford the residents more job opportunities and human service,” the report stated in a subsection on rehabilitation.

Councilman Pete Vizza, who, along with former Mayor Thomas Trigona, originally proposed forming the commission, expressed similar sentiments, saying, “Would I rather have the place somewhere other than downtown? Probably, yeah, but they have it there for a reason. Everybody has to cooperate to get it done. They’re in town to get their lives back in order. Seize the moment, get your life back in order and be a responsible citizen.”

The first corrections center in downtown Johnstown opened in 1972.

The state Department of Corrections currently rents a building located at 301 Washington Street. The lease expires on Oct. 11, 2015. Negotiations for a new agreement have not started yet, according to the DOC press office.

“I think if they were going to be proposing it today, I think there would be a lot of push back, but it’s been there such a long time,” said state Sen. John Wozniak, D-Westmont.

Opinions about the center and its location vary greatly. As a result, finding a balance between the prisoners’ rights and responsibilities and the concerns of citizens is difficult.

“There are a lot of complicated issues going on there,” said Cambria County Commissioner Thomas Chernisky.

Mixed feelings are common, like with Mayor Frank Janakovic and Cambria County Commissioner Douglas Lengenfelder.

“I was very impressed in terms of how that center was being run,” said Lengenfelder, who personally toured the halfway house. “That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have problems.”

Janakovic views the center from two perspectives, as an elected official concerned about crime and as the executive director of a social services organization, Alternative Community Resource Program, who understands the benefits of helping individuals try to better their lives.

“There are never any guarantees when you rehabilitate someone that they’re going to make it or not make it, and that’s the difficulty, Janakovic said.

“So when they come into our communities, we’re hoping that what they have learned in that center will be carried out into the community. But, again, it’s based per individual. It’s a really hard question and answer because it is based on an individual person.”

Johnstown’s CCC admitted 107 offenders in 2013. Seventeen came from Cambria County.

Three-quarters were from Cambria, Bedford, Blair, Centre, Indiana, Somerset, Westmoreland and Clearfield counties. All others came from outside the region.

“You’re bringing other people’s problems into our city,” said City Manager Kristen Denne, who favors removing the center from downtown Johns-town.

The Department of Corrections has attempted to address that issue for centers all across the commonwealth.

“DOC officials are cognizant that, in past years, offenders from outside of the surrounding areas have been sent to centers, and they have worked to narrow down the offenders that are sent to centers so they are more from the local and surrounding areas,” said Susan McNaughton, the DOC’s press secretary.

It is common for reactions to community corrections centers to vary.

“You have some communities that are more accepting. They understand the benefit of it,” said Morris Richardson, acting director for Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Region 3.

The region includes six state-run CCCs, including the one in Johnstown, and 12 contracted Community Corrections Facility sites.

 “Then you have some that don’t, Richardson said.

“I think most of the distaste is basically uneducated. They’re not familiar with what happens in the center. They’re not familiar with the men that we have here. They’re not familiar with the work we do.

“You hear of one bad thing going wrong and it’s everyone saying you need to close the center down. I think it comes from a lack of knowledge of what happens inside the center and the work that we’re doing here.”

Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Dave_Sutor.

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