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‘Incarceration Is The New Cancer’: PA Sen. Camera Bartolotta On Her Work To Revamp Criminal Justice

Courtesy of Camera Bartolotta's legislative office
Republican State Sen. Camera Bartolotta represents all or part of Beaver, Greene, and Washington counties.

Pennsylvania lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have pursued changes to the criminal-justice system. Republican state Senator Camera Bartolotta, of Washington County, has emerged as a leader in this effort. But when she was elected in 2014, she had little inkling that she would play such a role.

“Like a lot of people who aren’t exposed or maybe don’t have a family member or someone that they know who has been involved in the criminal justice system,” Bartolotta said, “I wasn’t that familiar with a lot of things.”

But then the lawmaker met her now-fiancé, former Pennsylvania Speaker of the House Bill DeWeese. DeWeese, a Democrat, spent 23 months in state prison after a jury convicted him in 2012 for illegally using state resources for political gain.

“He experienced so many different levels of the system, and shared with me so much of it,” Bartolotta said.

With DeWeese’s encouragement, Bartolotta said, she got involved with the Pennsylvania Prison Society, whose volunteers visit incarcerated people throughout the state and advocate for improved prison conditions. Bartolotta now serves on the organization’s board of directors.

As a result, Bartolotta said, she has been "getting to know some of the barriers that the Commonwealth puts in front of people who are trying to do the right thing, trying to regain their lives, and take care of their kids and stay out of the system," 

“It’s almost as though we’re trying really hard to keep them going back,” she added. 

Bartolotta’s engagement with criminal-justice issues comes at a time when legislators have worked to advance a raft of legislation meant to help people who get caught up in the system. Some measures, for example, seek to make it easier for people with criminal records to find jobs, while others aim to reduce incarceration.

Bartolotta introduced a proposal earlier this year to overhaul the state’s probation system.

She also joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers in January to establish the House and Senate’s Criminal Justice Reform Caucus. The caucus strives to promote a range of changes to the state’s criminal justice system. In September, that effort earned Bartolotta and the caucus’ three other co-founders Allegheny College’s state Prize for Civility in Public Life.

“There’s a long, long list of things we need to address to reverse the horrible tide that we caused [with mass incarceration],” Bartolotta said.

The legislator blames a “lock them up, throw away the key” mentality, and policies such as mandatory minimum sentences, for fueling an explosion in incarceration since the 1980s and 1990s.

Federal data show that U.S. imprisonment rates have more than tripled in the last four decades. The number of people in local jails, meanwhile, has quadrupled since 1980. In 2016, about 2.2 million people in the U.S. were in jail or prison, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Bartolotta said the impact of “tough-on-crime” policies is so pervasive, and costs the state’s corrections system so much money, that Democrats and Republicans are united in revamping those policies and reducing incarceration.

“Incarceration is the new cancer,” Bartolotta said. “If it hasn’t affected you directly, it probably has affected someone that you know.”

Bartolotta introduced her bill to loosen the state’s probation rules with co-sponsor state Sen. Anthony Williams, a Democrat from Philadelphia.

Probation allows people convicted of crimes to avoid incarceration for all or part of their sentence. As a condition of their release, people on probation must comply with court-ordered rules such as attending meetings with a probation officer, passing drug tests, or paying restitution.

Bartolotta said Pennsylvania’s probation law is too harsh, however, because it can allow judges to sentence people to decades of probation, and to send them to prison for violating the terms of their release. That, she says, means spending “hundreds of millions of dollars putting people behind bars who, I don’t know, forgot to call their probation officer, maybe traveled across the county line to take their kids to a soccer game,” Bartolotta said. “We’re really destroying lives when we could be doing much better.”

Bartolotta and Williams’ bill would cap probation at five years for felonies and three years for misdemeanors.

The legislation would bar courts from extending supervision if a probationer cannot afford to pay court fines or fees or restitution. And it would give people who are on probation the opportunity to petition for early termination of their supervision. Probationers, however, would first have to complete 18 months of their sentence without committing violations or new crimes.

The bill is still awaiting a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Committee chair Lisa Baker, a Republican from Luzerne County, put the measure on hold after five parolees were accused of committing a string of homicides following their release from prison.

In a September statement, Baker said the judiciary committee would not vote on legislation until its members are “satisfied that the decisionmaking infrastructure and checks are currently sufficient to safeguard the public and communities." The committee held a hearing on the homicides in October.

Bartolotta emphasized, however, that the proposal addresses probation, not parole. Probation is the punishment handed down by a judge at sentencing, and the program is overseen by county officials. Parole allows prisoners to be released early, depending largely on their conduct behind bars, and parolees are supervised by the state Department of Corrections.

Bartolotta said she is cautiously optimistic about the prospects for her bill. She noted groups as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Conservative Union have shined “a bright light” on issues like probation, and are lobbying for change.

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.