President Donald Trump, right, talks with Pennsylvania Sen. Camera Bartolotta, left, and Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Rep. Mike Turzai, center, after arriving at Pittsburgh International Airport, Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019, in Coraopolis, Pa. Trump is heading to Monaca, Pa., to tour Shell's soon-to-be completed Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex. The facility, which critics claim will become the largest air polluter in western Pennsylvania, is being built in an area hungry for investment.
An-Li became a reporter while completing her law degree at Stanford. In law school, she wrote about housing affordability, criminal justice and economic development, among other topics. She also served as the intern to NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, helping Ms. Totenberg to cover the U.S. Supreme Court and other legal matters. Originally from Pittsburgh, An-Li interned with the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette before joining 90.5 WESA in August
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.”
“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.
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.