As lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, John Fetterman is a very busy man. But he was prepared to drop everything on Friday and drive to a Weis Markets in Lebanon, Pa., to hand deliver a personal check for $109.63, the exact sum of groceries that a woman with advanced cancer was recently convicted of stealing.
Last week, a judge sentenced the woman, Ashley Menser, to at least 10 months in prison — a punishment that Mr. Fetterman called overly harsh and emblematic of a flawed criminal justice system.
“In what universe do you deserve to be sent to prison for 10 months for stealing $110 worth of groceries?” he said in an interview on Friday.
Mr. Fetterman, a Democrat who was elected in 2018, said he was shocked when he read a local news article about the case on Friday morning. “I could scarcely believe what I was reading,” he added. “This is just insane.”
Ms. Menser’s mother, Stephanie Bashore, said that her 36-year-old daughter has advanced uterine cancer, as well as cervical cancer, and needs surgery to remove her uterus and the tissue around it. On the day Ms. Menser was sentenced, her mother said, she had been scheduled to meet with her oncologist to discuss a last-ditch effort to treat the disease.
Ms. Bashore said that a doctor recently told her daughter, “If you don’t get this done, you will die. It is eating you up inside.”
Ms. Bashore said that her daughter had been working at a fast-food restaurant and had put many problems behind her. Her lawyer, Scot Feeman, asked Judge Samuel A. Kline to allow her to serve any sentence through home confinement so that she could continue to be treated at the Penn State Cancer Institute in nearby Hershey, Pa. Through an assistant, the judge declined to comment.
Mr. Feeman said that Ms. Menser had a history of minor drug and theft crimes, and that both the 2018 shoplifting charge she pleaded guilty to — a third-degree felony — and the sentence handed down were in line for someone with her criminal history.
He said Ms. Menser had a history of opioid use but had been drug-free for some time. He said she had also been on powerful psychiatric medication to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, partly brought on by the death of her child.
“With the psychiatric medicine, she has trouble discerning what’s real and what’s not,” Mr. Feeman said. He said Ms. Menser was distraught after the sentencing, and that he intends to ask the judge to reconsider.
“She is in a lot of pain, and very ill,” he said, “and she’s very concerned about her health prospects going forward.”
A copy of Ms. Menser’s sentencing order states that “in light of the defendant’s apparent possible physical conditions,” she should be moved as promptly as possible to a state facility “that has adequate medical treatment for her issues.”
On Friday, after Mr. Fetterman tweeted about his shock, Weis Markets sought to put some distance between the company and Ms. Menser’s prosecution.
Without naming Ms. Menser, the grocery chain said that a woman had left a Weis Markets store near Lebanon two years ago without paying for items in her cart.
“After she left our store, we alerted local law enforcement, who subsequently arrested her,” the statement said. “Since then, we have not participated in the judicial or sentencing process.”
To Mr. Fetterman, the case epitomizes many of his frustrations about the criminal justice system and how it treats people with addictions or mental health issues, especially those charged with minor drug or theft crimes.
As chairman of the state Board of Pardons, he has tried encouraging some inmates to seek commutations and pardons, promising them that they will get a fair hearing. And he has backed more clemency and commutations for offenders who have taken real steps to put their past behind them.
“There are a lot of people who get clean and try to move on with their lives, and pardons can free them from the baggage of past convictions,” he said.
In the end, Mr. Fetterman said he decided not to visit the Weis Markets store on Friday. Instead, he said he hopes that he can persuade company executives to publicly back a reconsideration of Ms. Menser’s sentence that would allow her to receive the necessary medical treatment.
“I know they don’t want this. Nobody wants this,” he said. “My hope is to get them on board and say, ‘This has gone far enough.’”
He is still willing to write a check to cover the restitution, he said.
“If there is no victim, why carry this out,” he said. “Why are we arguing over whether a woman with cancer should be denied the ability to see her doctor?”