Sen. Kissel: “This is a huge shift.”

March 21, 2023

Murder commutations roil nomination hearing for Board of Pardons and Paroles

CT Inside Investigator

March 21, 2023

Chairperson of the Connecticut Board of Pardons and Paroles Carleton Giles and other members of the board faced a slew of questions from lawmakers regarding the commuting of sentences for violent crimes, including murder, after Republican leaders in the senate brought attention to the issue during a press conference.

The members of the Board of Pardons and Paroles came before the Judiciary Committee for a public hearing to confirm their nominations to remain on the board. Giles, a former police officer and a pastor, answered questions for hours regarding the board’s commutation policy.

Under Connecticut statute, a three-member commutation panel can reduce the sentence of an incarcerated individual. Republicans raised the alarm after the number of commutations went from just one or two per year to 71 in 2022, including 44 commutations for murder convictions, and called on Gov. Lamont to suspend commutations until lawmakers could understand what is happening and why.

Gov. Lamont, in response, encouraged the board “undertake a collaborative and comprehensive review of the commutation policy.”

However, one week later, Senate Republican Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, issued a statement on March 15 after more sentences were commuted, saying “absolutely nothing has changed.”

“A week after Republicans stood side by side with the families of murder victims to reveal the drastic spike in the commutations… this unelected board continues to shave decades off of prison sentences?” Kelly said. “So, what happened? Obviously, nothing because the Board met and continued its practice of shortening sentences for convicted murderers.”

Under questioning by Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, who spoke at the Republican press conference, Giles said the commutation policy was revamped during the pandemic, part of a years-long look at its policies and informed by criminal justice reform advocates but denied any policy input from the Lamont administration.

“It wasn’t any one particular thing, we’ve been looking at many things,” Giles said. “Commutations happened to be one of many.”

“This is a sea-change,” Kissel said. “This is a huge shift. It’s a shift from one or two per year to what my understanding was upwards of over 70 in 2022.”

Executive Director of the Board of Pardons and Paroles Richard Sparaco previously issued a comment saying the spike in commutations was less about the policy change, which he said tightened the conditions under which an incarcerated person can apply for a commutation, but was rather a result of a backlog of applications left over from the pandemic.

State statute says the Board of Pardons and Paroles can make its own policy and Giles said that neither the Lamont administration nor the Judiciary Committee were informed of the changes before they took effect and were implemented.

Kissel said he found it “problematic” that prisoners in Connecticut’s correctional institutions found out about the policy change before lawmakers, resulting in a flood of applications. Giles said many commutation applications are denied in pre-screening and during full commutation hearings.

The other nominees faced similar questioning from members of the Judiciary Committee.

The board’s nominations in light of the recent commutations elicited public testimony as well, with a number of crime victims or their families testifying in opposition to the nominations because of the commutation policy.

Genna Giamatteo, a friend of Elizabeth Carlson who was murdered 21 years ago, asked the committee not to confirm the nominations until the commutation policy has been changed.

“I stand before you today to plead with you to stop allowing murderers to be eligible for commutations,” Giamatteo said. “The families and friends of victims are outraged that a group of people nominated by the governor have the authority to potentially overrule sentences for murderers and release them early from prison.”

“This is absurd and I’m asking the Judiciary Committee to not reappoint these Pardons and Parole members until the commutation policy has been revised,” Giamatteo continued. Other members of the public referenced Carlson’s case. Carlson’s murderer applied for a commutation, but the request was denied by the board members.

Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, said state statute allows a group of well-paid “laypeople” to “override judges, rulings and plea deals.”

“It’s outrageous that this board has the power to take this upon themselves without any notification to this committee, the governor’s office or anyone to change the trajectory of our judicial system,” Somers said. “I’m asking this committee to please do not reappoint anyone to the Board of Pardons and Paroles until there is a meeting with the governor and your committee, which he has agreed to have. Let the committee and the stakeholder weigh in on what the policy should be before you reappoint anyone.”

However, Normal Gaines Jr., who was sentenced to life without parole and then reduced to 30 years by the State Supreme Court because he was a juvenile at the time of the double murder and then received a commutation, testified that since being released he is attending community college and is working as a program coordinator at the Second Chance Reentry Initiative Program.

“If it wasn’t for these commutations I wouldn’t be here today,” Gaines said, adding that his work with community youth helps them understand that “violence is not the answer” ultimately preventing more violence from occurring. “Postponing that four years from now, we don’t understand how many lives probably would have been lost.”

Co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, said he will support Giles nomination and said Giles was acting within his statutory authority in crafting the commutation policy and that the legislature can revisit that statute if necessary.

Co-chair Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, concurred that Giles and the board have that statutory power and that he and other lawmakers had urged Giles in the past to do more to reduce sentences for compassionate health reasons, particularly during COVID. “I see no reason for this committee not to reconfirm you today.”

“I think we can have a debate as a committee as to whether our statutory process needs to be changed granting commutations but to take that out on you or other members of the board for executing their authority granted to them by our statutes would not set a good precedent for this legislature,” Stafstrom said.

But support for the confirmations was mixed, with some Republican lawmakers who spoke indicating they would oppose some of the nominations.

“I really wished that this had been bounced off of us before it was implemented,” Kissel said. “I know that perhaps we failed in giving you an open-ended statute. I’m going to have to vote against your nomination today to flag this until we can get to the bottom as to what exactly is taking place because it is not the public policy that I support.”

All nominated members for the Board of Pardons and Paroles were eventually confirmed by vote, although there were dissenting votes for several current members of the board.

Murder commutations roil nomination hearing for Board of Pardons and Paroles