“This is a stain on us in CT, and this is wrong.”

April 12, 2023

Senate approves 5 commissioners for embattled Connecticut parole board

(Hartford Courant)

Amid controversy, the state Senate voted Wednesday to approve a former parole board chairman who has been sharply criticized for overseeing the reduction of prison sentences for violent criminals.

Carleton J. Giles of Milford was removed this week by Gov. Ned Lamont as chairman of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, but he is being allowed to remain as a regular member of the board. His nomination for a four-year term was approved by the Democratic-controlled Senate by 21-14 with two conservative Democrats voting against Giles.

The Senate also approved four other members of the board who did not serve on the special subcommittee with Giles that sliced years — and sometimes decades — off the prison sentences.

Republicans blasted the board’s new policy that allowed reductions in sentences of 44 convicted murderers in a change that stunned the families of victims. The board had historically granted a small handful of commutations each year, but the total suddenly skyrocketed last year to 71, including the murders.

Prompted by the controversy, Lamont demoted Giles, a former Norwalk police officer and currently an ordained minister who crafted the policy on commutations. Lamont named Jennifer Medina Zaccagnini, a highly experienced social worker who started on the board part time in 2008 before switching to full time in 2014.

Republicans called upon Lamont to halt all commutations while the policies are reviewed in an upcoming meeting in the next two weeks.

An independent state agency, the parole board has been operating without oversight by the legislature or the governor, Republicans said. But some Democrats countered that the legislature had granted authority to the board to create its own policies and procedures.

Sen. John Kissel, the ranking Senate Republican on the legislature’s judiciary committee, said he was making a distinction between the controversial policy and the affability of Giles as a person.

Giles “singlehandedly came up with this new policy” that he described as “a commutation policy on steroids” that has impacted multiple cases, he said.

“This is not an easy vote for me,” Kissel said on the Senate floor before voting no. “This is Carleton Giles as chairman, initiating a wide-ranging policy on commutations. … He testified, under oath, that it came out of whole cloth. It wasn’t, based on his sworn testimony, something coming out of the governor’s office or anywhere else. … His explanation was, based on our notion of a second-chance society, we would flesh out the commutation policy. … He did not reach out to anybody in the administration. … We’re the lawmakers. We’re the ones who make these decisions.”

He added, “We do not have a dictator. … The rule of law makes a difference in Connecticut and across the nation. Why are we here if what we do makes no difference? … He should have reached out to the governor’s office.”

The policy change, Kissel said, was stunning.

He said it makes no sense that three board members, who are not elected and not attorneys, could serve on a special subcommittee to change the rules regarding the timing of releases from prisons.

“Holy Toledo! What took place in 2022?” Kissel said. “Forty-four murderers had their sentences reduced. Not a little. The average has been 15 years.”

News of the change spread like wild fire through the prisons, he said.

As recently as 2021, only 18 inmates sought commutations for their sentences.

After the policy change, the applications zoomed in 2022 to 431.

Within the next two weeks, Lamont expects a meeting among victims, board members, legislative leaders and others who are concerned about the policies that have allowed the commutations.

“The administration is gathering stakeholders before the board’s next scheduled meeting to determine if its process can be improved, and to ensure that the commutation process balances the importance of second chances for Connecticut prisoners, the perspectives of victims, and public safety considerations,” Lamont’s chief spokesman, Adam Joseph, said Wednesday.

Defending Giles

The change has been applauded by prison reform advocates and blasted by opponents who said that prosecutors and judges knew the circumstances best when the original sentences were handed down.

But state Sen. Gary Winfield, a New Haven Democrat who co-chairs the judiciary committee, and other Democrats defended Giles. Winfield and others noted that prisoners seeking a commutation are pre-screened and often rejected before a hearing is held.

“It’s not correct to say that it is something that happened and no one is aware of it,” Winfield said. “We have given some of our power to the Board of Pardons and Paroles. … This is about Carleton Giles, who has chaired the board and followed the law. … Yes, we could argue that they could be more transparent. … The process in place is not to just let everybody out of the prisons.”

Sen. Herron Gaston, a Bridgeport Democrat, said that he supports Giles as a fellow minister. Saying that he believes in “compassionate forgiveness,” Gaston said that Jesus Christ “would be seen in our society as a crucified criminal.”

Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, a New Haven Democrat, said some prisoners grow and mature more than others – adding that the legislature must look at the context of the commutations based on a “very sharp increase of extreme sentences” in the 1990s.
“Beginning in 1995, we saw virtually no commutations,” Looney said. “Commutations can serve as a necessary corrective if need be. … We cannot accomplish ongoing justice on the single day of sentencing.”

Rep. Steve Stafstrom, a Bridgeport Democrat who co-chairs the judiciary committee, said previously that the victims should not be notified until there is a commutation hearing scheduled — rather than being notified even before the applications are sometimes summarily dismissed before they reach the hearing stage.

Republican opposition

State Sen. Heather Somers, a Mystic Republican, said the board had overridden sentencing judges and carefully crafted plea bargains.

“This policy was crafted in the darkness of COVID,” said Somers, who voted against multiple nominees. “I say this has to change. This is a stain on us in Connecticut, and this is wrong.”

State Sen. Stephen Harding, a Brookfield Republican, said the policy “is not in the best interests of public safety, and most importantly, is not in the best interests of the victims and the victims’ families. … We need to make it clear to victims in our state that we hear you.”

Victims’ families 

The families of some victims have expressed outrage. One of those was the family of Elizabeth Carlson, who was shot and killed by her ex-boyfriend during a home invasion in May 2002. Her mother, Audrey, said she feels that “Connecticut is turning its back on survivors of homicide.”

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.

Carlson was a successful woman “who happened to fall in love with the wrong guy,” Somers said on the Senate floor. “Mr. Carlson can’t even speak the person’s name. Their mission now is that no other family has to be re-victimized every three years.”

The commutations, she said, are highly important because they often cover violent crimes with deep impacts on the families.

“This is not embezzlement,” Somers said. “This is taking someone’s life.”

Some board members faced opposition last week in the state House of Representatives.

Board member Michael Pohl of Manchester was approved by 85-61, while Deborah Smith Palmieri of Guilford was approved by 93-53. Along with Giles, Pohl and Palmieri have served on a three-member commutation panel that made recommendations on which sentences should be reduced.

Zaccagnini, a Watertown resident, was approved by the House on the consent calendar that is reserved for non-controversial nominees.