Sen. Kelly: “We have an unelected bureaucrat running the CT parole board.”

April 17, 2023

Parole board’s power still in play

Chairman demoted over commutations, but some dissatisfied



Republicans and crime victims are applauding Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont for ousting the embattled chairman of the state’s parole board for reducing the sentences of violent criminals.

But advocates want to go further as they prepare for a meeting in the next two weeks to consider crafting a new policy to avoid the commutations that occurred under former chairman Carleton J. Giles.

The moves by Giles and two other board members sparked an outcry when 71 prisoners had their sentences reduced last year, including 44 convicted of murder.

The issue came to a head when Lamont allowed Giles to remain on the board, and the state Senate approved him for a new, four-year term by a 21-14 vote with two Democrats breaking with their party and voting against Giles.

State Sen. Heather Somers, a Groton Republican who is an outspoken opponent of the commutations, said that it makes no sense to allow Giles to remain on the board.

“You can’t take the head of the ship and put him in the back and think that things are going to change,” she said. “We’re just shuffling the deck here. If we’re going to do the right thing and set the tone for the state of Connecticut, there has to be an open process where every legislator has input, where the victims have input, where the prosecutors and defense attorneys have input on what this policy should be. We’re the ones representing the people of the state of Connecticut, not the Board of Pardons and Paroles. We need to collectively decide what that policy is — what is fair, what is just, and what is right.”

Republicans charged that Giles had essentially unilaterally changed the rules with a new policy that allowed the commutations to jump from a handful per year to 71.

But Democrats countered that Giles had followed the law, adding that the legislature had granted the board the authority to set its own rules and regulations.

Lamont, though, intervened and now wants all sides involved to come together to discuss the next steps because he cannot make unilateral changes.

“Unlike other states, Connecticut vests the pardon power with professionals at the Board of Pardons and Parole rather than in the office of the governor,” said Adam Joseph, Lamont’s chief spokesman. “Although the board’s powers are defined by the legislature and its members are nominated by the governor, it exercises independent authority over its policies and decisions.”

Differing views on Giles

While Republicans blasted Giles, Democrats defended him.

Rep. Steven Stafstrom, a Bridgeport Democrat who is an influential player as co-chairman of the legislature’s judiciary committee, said the approval of Giles was a positive development.

He tweeted that it is “really sad that some members of the General Assembly are attacking someone for doing his job as spelled out by our statutes.”

Stafstrom told lawmakers on the committee that no wholesale changes are needed in the commutation policy and instead there should only be “tweaks” in the process.

Those include avoiding notifying crime victims until a commutation hearing has been scheduled, rather than alarming them unnecessarily when a case comes up and is summarily dismissed before a hearing is needed.

Despite the criticism, Senate majority leader Bob Duff, a Norwalk Democrat, said, “I believe that Carleton Giles is a good man with a good heart.” He added that the parole board was not “a rubber stamp.”

Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, a New Haven Democrat, said there has been “a rethinking, a reexamination” of sentencing in recent years as some prisoners received long sentences in the past for drug-related crimes.

“It was not done in a cavalier way,” Looney said of the commutations, adding that science has said that brain development is not fully complete until age 25 when the average age of those receiving commutation was 23 at the time of the crime.

Sen. Herron Gaston, a Bridgeport Democrat, said that he has known Giles for the past 10 years as a fellow ordained minister. He described Giles as “a consummate professional, par excellence.”

But Senate Republican leader Kevin Kelly said crime is a widespread problem in Connecticut that has caused some citizens to avoid going to an ATM cash machine because they are afraid that they will be robbed.

“We have an unelected bureaucrat running the board,” Kelly said of Giles, adding that the legislature’s regulations review committee should have examined the commutation policy.

Giles, who has avoided publicity since his demotion, could not immediately be reached for comment.


The families of some victims have expressed outrage. Among the most outspoken is the family of Elizabeth Carlson, who was shot and killed by her ex-boyfriend during a home invasion in May 2002. Her mother, Audrey, and a close family friend, Jan Kritzman of Newington, came to the Capitol to lobby lawmakers regarding the commutations.

More than 20 years ago, veterinarian Jonathan Carney broke into the family’s home and hid in Elizabeth’s bedroom before shooting the 24-year-old woman seven times. Her family was stunned earlier this year when Carney’s case went before the parole board for a pre-screening hearing for a commutation. In February, they heard that Carney would go before the board with just five days’ notice. They gathered thousands of letters of objection that were sent to the board ahead of Carney’s hearing.

Carney’s request for a full commutation hearing was ultimately denied, but Carlson’s family members rode an emotional rollercoaster without knowing the outcome in advance.

“We accepted a 42-year contract, ironclad,” Audrey Carlson said of the convicted killer’s sentence. “Guess what? We were wrong. … This is not political. This is what has to be to keep us all safe and do what is right.”

Michael Cox, of New Haven

On the Senate floor, Somers listed numerous cases where criminals had their sentences reduced.

She cited the case of Michael Cox, a convicted felon who killed two people by shooting one in the head during the robbery of a gold chain and shooting another in the stomach. He also shot a third man in the leg in New Haven in a drug-related dispute in 1991 during a crime spree when he was 19 years old, according to court records.

Police also said that Cox supplied the gun to a friend that was used in another crime to kill a third victim. Cox himself had been shot during his crime spree, but he survived. He eventually pleaded guilty to murder, second-degree assault with a firearm, felony murder, and aiding and abetting first-degree manslaughter. For those crimes, Cox was sentenced to 75 years in prison.

The pardons board commuted his sentence by 30 years, which made him eligible for parole, Somers said.

He was eventually set free under compassionate release, due to declining health as he often had to use a wheelchair in prison after contracting COVID twice and suffering from gout, diabetes, and kidney failure that required dialysis.

During his 31-year prison stint, Cox earned a high school equivalency diploma, became an ordained minister and certified nurse’s assistant.

Giles, the board chairman, recommended in 2021 that Cox should be released.

But only seven months after his release, Cox was arrested again on July 31, 2022 in a domestic dispute that was mentioned on the Senate floor.

“It’s false, actually, that he strangled his girlfriend,” said Alexander T. Taubes, an attorney for Cox in the commutation process. “In fact, Mr. Cox’s girlfriend never even alleged that he strangled her. When it went to court … he was granted a program which diverts the allegation from the criminal process, and when the program is completed, the charges will be dismissed and sealed, which is a common practice that occurs all the time.”

Taubes has helped 82 prisoners to have 935 years removed from their sentences by the Board of Pardons and Paroles. Taubes, who graduated from Yale Law School, tweeted that the board’s change was the proper response to the “excessive sentencing” that was common in the 1990s for inmates who are still in prison now due to long sentences.

With 9,000 prisoners in Connecticut, Taubes said that only about 1% of inmates has received commutations under the process established by Giles. Taubes said Giles has been scapegoated and should be reinstated as chairman.

“All he has ever been accused of doing is his job and what he should be doing under the law, as is his obligation that he swore to uphold when he received the job,” Taubes said.

In the Cox case, a three-judge panel of the state’s Sentence Review Division said in a strongly worded decision in 2001 that Cox’s sentence had been justified.

“The sentence in the instant case recognizes the fact that some individuals are simply too dangerous to live freely in society,” the three veteran judges stated. “The petitioner’s previous record included three felonies and a violation of probation. The petitioner was involved in the violent deaths of three citizens and the wounding of another. As noted in the petitioner’s pre-sentence report, incarceration was the only alternative.”

The judges concluded that Cox’s “long term imprisonment is neither inappropriate nor disproportionate, but rather mandated by reason, logic and common sense.”

State Rep. Gregory Howard, who has served as a police officer for the past 21 years in his hometown of Stonington, said he will cite the violent crimes of prisoners when the state House of Representatives votes in the coming weeks on Giles as both chambers must approve his nomination to remain on the board.

The 44 murderers who received commutations, he said, committed serious, violent crimes.

“We keep getting told they made a mistake, they were young, they worked hard in prison,” Howard said in an interview. “I understand all of that. But you’ve got somebody who shot someone and lit him on fire. That’s a savage human being. Period. You don’t accidentally do that. That’s not a mistake. Firing bullets in the middle of a city and you kill a kid on a sidewalk or a kid in a playground or you get kicked out of a club and you go by and you’re spraying the place with bullets. When you point a gun at someone and you pull the trigger, you intend to kill them. Period. That’s it. That’s not a mistake. That’s intentional. … I disagree with those 44 commutations. That was excessive.”

Howard added, “This anti-police, soft-on-crime philosophy is not in the best interest of public safety, and we need to pivot back. We’re going to create a less safe Connecticut if we continue to allow murderers back into society.”