Spike in commutations for prisoners under scrutiny

March 21, 2023

Spike in commutations for prisoners under scrutiny

(The Day)

A new policy enacted by the state Board of Pardons and Paroles that some lawmakers say has led to the spike in sentence reductions for violent criminals came under renewed scrutiny Monday.

Board of Pardon and Paroles Chairman Carleton Giles faced a barrage of questions about the updated policy during a reappointment hearing before the state legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

Some Republicans vowed a “no” vote on Giles’ reappointment to the board by Gov. Ned Lamont.

The Board of Pardons and Paroles granted 71 commutations in 2022, cutting an average of 15.4 years off sentences, mostly for murder convictions. One recent commutation included a five-year reduction in a sentence for a man convicted of killing his wife in East Lyme in 1989.

Even before a two-year pause, commutations were sparse, totaling six between 2016 and 2021, the board’s records show.

Generally, someone serving a sentence of at least 10 years and has already served 10 years is eligible for a commutation under the new policy. Those serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole are not eligible.

Republican lawmakers in recent weeks have called on the governor’s office to suspend all commutations until the policy is fully reviewed. In a recent statement, Lamont acknowledged “it’s time to step back and see how the policy is working.”

“The seriousness of the topic demands a careful approach involving the General Assembly as well as stakeholders, especially victims,” Lamont has said.

Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, a ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, asked Giles at Monday’s hearing how the new policy came about and expressed frustration lawmakers were not given notice of the change.

Giles said the policy was worked out by himself, Board of Pardon and Paroles Executive Director Richard Sparaco and legal advisers.

“That’s a huge policy change. Don’t you feel that should have been a directive from the legislature?” Kissel asked. “It’s undermined people’s confidence in the judicial system … because so much time and effort goes into a sentence.”

Giles, who said state statutes allow the board to make its own policies, expressed some willingness to work with the state legislature on the policy in the future.

“The biggest room in the world is the room for improvement,” Giles said.

Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, joined other lawmakers and victims’ families at a press conference earlier this month to express outrage at a policy she said is forcing families to relive traumatic events to ensure convicted persons serve a full sentence.

“Commutation should be a rare occurrence,” Somers said. “This policy diminishes the severity of the crime and undermines the public’s trust in the criminal justice system.”

Criteria for a sentence reduction also does not take into account whether a person’s sentence was the result of a plea agreement that led a family to agree to forgo a trial, she said.

“I can’t believe we have this random board usurping the judicial system and making a mockery of it,” Somers said. “It’s unbelievable.”

Giles is part of the three-member panel that pre-screens and holds hearings with inmates before deciding whether to commute a sentence. Giles said the board takes seriously the criteria that would allow for a commutation ― the seriousness of the crime, the impact on victims, efforts at rehabilitation and length of sentence.

Genna Giamatteo, a friend of Elizabeth Carlson, who was murdered 21 years ago by her ex-boyfriend in Newington, pleaded with the Judiciary Committee to end the policy.

“Stop allowing murderers to be eligible for commutations,” Giamatteo said. “Elizabeth’s murderer was sentenced to 42 years in prison under a plea bargain agreement. The terms of agreement did not allow parole or early release. The victim’s family was told by the authorities the plea bargain was iron clad.”

“The family and friends of victims are outraged that a group of individuals nominated by the governor have the authority to overrule people’s sentences …,” she said.

Sparaco, in an interview with The Day earlier this year, attributed the spike in commutations to not only the updated policy but also the pause in commutations while the new policy was written combined with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Commutations were halted between August 2019 and June 1, 2021, and new applications began being accepted in July 2021. The board was playing catch up with a backlog of eligible inmates. Sparaco said he expects the number of eligible people to decline. He said there were at least 1,000 people eligible to apply.

The Board accepted 328 applications through 2022.

Giles on Monday said the number of commutations in 2022 was 63 and not 71 as indicated in the pardons board’s database. Through February 2023, the board screened 393 applications for commutation, denied 296, and commuted the sentences of 97 people, according to data provided by the governor’s office.