Jailed Pennsylvania cancer patient sparks debate over justice

Ashley Menser
Ashley Menser was diagnosed with cancer in 2011

The case of a Pennsylvania cancer patient sentenced to up to seven years in prison for shoplifting has sparked a debate over the justice system.

Ashley Menser, 36, who has ovarian and cervical cancer, was given a minimum 10 month jail term for stealing $109 (£83) worth of goods from a market.

The state’s lieutenant governor criticised the punishment as “insane”.

But the district attorney has dissented, citing the woman’s prior record.

Menser has begun serving her prison term since pleading guilty on 22 January and being sentenced by Lebanon County Judge Samuel Kline.

Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman on Friday called on the judge to “err on the side of mercy” in Menser’s case. He later offered to personally reimburse the shop for the stolen goods.

“In what universe do you deserve to be sent to prison for 10 months for stealing $110 worth of groceries?” he asked in the New York Times.

Mr Fetterman said the case was an example of failures in the US criminal justice system and how it handles people with mental health issues or drug addiction.

Menser, a mother of four, had a history of post traumatic stress disorder and drug abuse for which she was receiving treatment, the PA Post newspaper reported. She was diagnosed with cancer in 2011.

“Nobody wants this,” Mr Fetterman said.

However, the state’s district attorney has pushed back against Mr Fetterman’s response, saying he left out key details in the case in his criticisms.

“Our Lieutenant Governor found it appropriate to criticise the Court and the victim; he went so far as to offer a personally delivered check for the underlying amount to the victim to absolve the defendant of the crime,” District Attorney Pier Hess Graf said.

“He failed to mention in any of his tweets, however, the extensive prior record of the defendant, her drug abuse, or the fact that her sentencing ranges – as set forth by the legislature – call for jail time.”

According to the district attorney’s office, Menser has 13 prior theft convictions and a record with welfare fraud and endangering children’s welfare.

She pleaded guilty to retail theft for stealing goods including makeup, hair dye and a candle from the Lebanon, Pennsylvania, Weis Markets grocery store in 2018.

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Ms Graf noted that the state prison system is “capable of addressing serious health concerns for inmates”.

Her office said Menser had refused treatment for her medical issues last year, but her family told the Post that they had scheduled an oncology appointment the day of her sentencing and planned on arranging a hysterectomy later.

The Menser family has also said she has received no treatment since her sentencing. Her lawyer has asked the judge to reconsider the sentence.

The case has divided social media too, with some people commending Mr Fetterman for his empathy and others saying Menser was not a good example of a victim of the system.

US prisoners are entitled to medical care by the Constitution, but in recent years, for-profit institutions that provide healthcare to prisons have come under fire for failing to adequately treat inmates.

The American Civil Liberties Union states that often, mental health conditions, other chronic illnesses and emergencies are untreated by prison staff.

According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, around 22% of deaths in custody are due to cancer.

Source: bbc.co.uk

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