GOP: Suspend commutations after 71 CT prisoners released early on murder, other charges

March 22, 2023

Hartford Courant

Carleton Giles, chairman of the Connecticut Board of Pardons and Paroles, landed in the hot seat Monday as Judiciary Committee members grilled Giles on his controversial new commutation policy that trimmed the sentences of dozens of violent offenders last year.

Debate over the merits of the June 2021 policy shift, which saw the historical rates of one-to-two commutations a year skyrocket to 71 in 2022, consumed Monday’s public hearing on the re-nomination of Giles and nine other members of the State Board of Pardons and Paroles.

Giles and Democratic allies said state statute granted Giles the purview to formulate his own policy. Republican adversaries argued that the sweeping changes in the revamped commutation program were not a matter of policy but regulation — a classification that would have triggered a review by the Regulations of Connecticut State Agencies before the policy’s codification.

Ranking member of the Judiciary Committee Sen. John Kissel, who presented Giles with one of the toughest lines of questioning, raised concern over the fact that Giles did not run the new policy by the governor’s office or members of the legislative branch before implementing the rule change.

“It’s very disconcerting to me that he almost unilaterally came up with this policy and implemented it without reaching out,” Kissel said. “I think that has the potential to undermine competence in our entire judicial system as it pertains to criminal justice.”

Kissel hounded Giles on the precipitous factors that led the policy change to which Giles suggested that commutations were the next step in a series of criminal justice reforms initiated with legislative support in 2015 that included early terminations, expedited pardons, and representation in probation revocation proceedings.

“I know that you feel that you’re acting in simpatico with the legislature, but not with this legislator,” Kissel said as he wrapped up his questions. “I have no problem with a commutation once in a while, if someone’s older in years or ill or something like that, to have it as a wholesale, open the back door on a sentence for every inmate that’s in there for over 10 years if they show any kind of rehabilitation progress is not justice in my mind.”

Republican leaders and crime victims called on the governor and Board of Pardons and Paroles to suspend commutations at a press conference in Hartford earlier this month.

Gov. Ned Lamont responded, saying “it’s time” for the board “to step back.”

“The commutation process has accelerated rapidly since coming back online mid-2021. Given the substantial progress the Board already has made in hearing commutation cases, it’s time to step back and see how the policy is working,” Lamont said in a statement following the press conference. “The seriousness of the topic demands a careful approach involving the General Assembly as well as stakeholders, especially victims.”

The program excludes inmates that have a life sentence without the possibility of release. In order to qualify, incarcerated individuals must complete at least 10 years of their sentence and be more than two years away from parole eligibility.

Unresolved criminal charges, court fees, fines and outstanding warrants, as well as nolled charges issued within the last 13 months also preclude eligibility.

Inmates seeking a commutation go through an initial round where staff sort eligible and ineligible applications, a prescreening that decides whether or not the board will grant a hearing, and a full hearing that determines whether they will receive a commutation. Both the pre-screen and the hearing are overseen by Giles and hand-picked members of the Board of Pardons and Paroles Deborah Smith Palmieri and Michael Pohl.

During the public comment period, Norman Gaines, who was incarcerated before receiving a commutation from the board, spoke about the benefits of the process.

“For the cases that are extraordinary, I think I fit the bill,” Gaines said.

In 2000, Gaines was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for a 1996 double homicide in Bridgeport when Gaines was 17. In 2014, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled juveniles cannot be sentenced to life without parole, Gaines was resentenced to 30 years in prison after pleading guilty through the Alford doctrine which simultaneously allows a defendant to maintain innocence. Gaines was released from prison through the new commutation policy.

Gaine’s story is not unique in the program. The average age of the inmates whose commutation request makes it to a full hearing is 46. The average age at the time they committed their offenses is 22.6 years. The board’s proclivity to commute the sentences of offenders who committed crimes when they were at or below the age of 25 aligns with a general agreement among the scientific community that brain development continues through age 25.

“I am an honors student at Asnuntuck Community College. Right now, I’m in 44% completion of my associates degree for human services and my GPA’s a 4.0” said Gaines, who is also a coordinator at the Second Chance Re-Entry Initiative Program. “When I was talking to the panel of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, I said that I would do my best to be a beacon of the community. … I’m just one of many … that make sure we move forward so that when these hearings come up, the public  understands they’re in good hands.”

The crime victims who testified at the public hearing did not agree, with some calling for the disqualification of all those convicted of violent crimes.

Allegra Weir said that she has received two notices that the man who murdered her mother, orphaning Weir and her four brothers when she was just 17, applied to have his 45-year sentence commuted.

“I was told that he was not eligible (for commutation) but why I had to receive a letter — two letters — was very upsetting,” Weir said. “Do you realize that this paper notification alone rips open a wound that the victims of these criminals, crimes of murder, rape, assault, they have to revisit that life-altering, painful time like it was yesterday, which in turn re-victimize the victims all over again.”

Giles said that the commutation process seriously takes into account the input and impact of crime victims.

“All victims are traumatized. And when they get a notice, all victims are re-traumatized. But some have processed it in a way that says, ‘if this offender has made progress, it’s not up to me.’ The victim will sometimes say, ‘They should go out and make an impact.’ Some are like our state victim advocate, who says it doesn’t matter what they’ve done, they should serve their time,’” Giles said.

Co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee Rep. Steven Stafstrom said that the solution to victim retraumatization is not eliminating the program, but eliminating the notification at application.

“What we heard today is that a number of the applications that come in are summarily denied or rejected before they even get to a hearing. So it would make sense to me that notice go out to the victim only after a hearing date has been set. If what we’re talking about is not retraumatizing a victim by an application being submitted over and over and over again, the solution is not to stop the application from coming in, it’s to make sure there’s that initial case assessment before the notice is sent out,” Stafstrom said.

“I look forward to meeting with the chairman. I look forward to meeting with the governor’s office to continue to work through this,” he said. “But I don’t think we need wholesale change to the policy. I think it’s a couple reasonable tweaks here and there.”