CT Senate GOP blasts controversial bill on parole board commutations

May 30, 2023

CT Senate GOP blasts controversial bill on parole board commutations

Hartford Courant

Senate Republicans blasted a controversial bill Tuesday, saying it paves the way for prisoners to be released early by the state’s parole board.

The clash marks another chapter in the months-long controversy that led to the ouster of parole board chairman Carleton Giles by Gov. Ned Lamont. Republicans charged that a bill passed last week by the state House of Representatives is too lenient and is weaker than a proposal offered by the new board chairwoman who was appointed by Lamont.

The new bill says that victims will not be notified when a convicted criminal applies for a commutation to have a sentence reduced. Rep. Steven Stafstrom, a Bridgeport Democrat who co-chairs the judiciary committee, and others have said repeatedly that the automatic notifications had caused needless anxiety among victims’ families when the criminal’s case for commutation was soon after summarily dismissed by parole board members.

Instead, Stafstrom said Tuesday that the victims should be notified only when a public hearing is scheduled, not when an application is made that could be immediately rejected.

But Republicans and some victims’ families argued Tuesday that they want to be notified in order to be aware about what is happening in their cases, many of which involve the murder of a family member.

“If you are the victim of a crime like this, you want to know every single thing that person in prison who took your family member’s life does,” said Sen. Heather Somers, a Groton Republican who has been outspoken advocate for the families. “It was clear from the victims speaking previously that the one thing they wanted was notification. This amendment strips away the notification of victims when someone applies for a commutation. So there is no victim notification.”

Rep. Steven Stafstrom, a Bridgeport Democrat, supports a bill on the parole board as co-chairman of the legislature’s judiciary committee.

Senate Republican leader Kevin Kelly of Stratford said his caucus has crafted at least 41 amendments “that we are prepared to run” in order to change and delay the bill.

Republicans, he said, will keep debating in a filibuster to try to run out the clock in an attempt to defeat the bill when the legislative session ends on June 7.

“Yes, this issue is that important,” Kelly said when asked by The Courant.

Stafstrom responded, “It is extremely unfortunate. They appear to be putting politics over policy.”

Another dispute was that Sen. John Kissel, the ranking Senate Republican on the judiciary committee, said he was blindsided and was unaware of any drafts of the bill before it was passed last week by the House. Instead, he said he learned from officials outside the Capitol about 24 hours before the bill was debated.

“We would be better served if we had no bill this year and let chairwoman (Jennifer Medina) Zaccagnini do her work,” Kissel told reporters. “The bill that was handed up to us from the House actually takes a step back. … If the bill runs out of steam and doesn’t pass this year, I have the utmost confidence in Jennifer Zaccagnini to make good decisions that respect victims and victims’ rights.”

Kissel, known for stemwinders on the Senate floor, said Republicans are prepared to offer amendments and “discuss it until the cows come home.”

Stafstrom countered that the Republican caucus received a draft of the commutation bill two weeks before it passed in the House and “received updated drafts along the way.”

Regarding the timing, Stafstrom checked his notes before saying that an earlier draft had been sent by Stafstrom’s clerk to a Senate Republican legal staff member on May 11 at 1:12 p.m. — two weeks before the House vote.

Rep. Craig Fishbein, the ranking House Republican on the judiciary committee, agreed with Stafstrom, adding, “There was full knowledge that we were working on something. To now say that they didn’t know, I don’t know.”

Fishbein said the bill “restores the power of the legislature” because it calls for the advice and consent of the full legislature to pick the board chair. Currently, the governor holds that power exclusively, and that was how he was able to oust Giles, the controversial chairman who presided over the commutations.

Another issue, Republicans said, is the amount of time needed in prison before a criminal gets a chance for a commutation. Currently, convicts must be in prison for 10 years before applying. But the new parole board chairwoman, social worker Jennifer Medina Zaccagnini, wants the standard to be the greater of 10 years or 50% of the sentence, Republicans said. That means if a person is serving a 40-year sentence, he could not apply for commutation until 20 years have been served.

“We are the survivors of homicide,” said Jan Kritzman, a close friend of the Carlson family that has advocated for better legislation following the shooting death of 24-year-old Elizabeth Carlson in 2002 by her former boyfriend in the family’s Newington home. “Where is our sentencing commutation? There is none.”

Linda Binnenkade, whose family member was a victim of a triple homicide in 2003 at a Windsor Locks automobile shop, said murderers should be treated differently from other criminals who turn their lives around. She added that the families will not give up the fight.

“We are now a bleeding heart state for criminals,” Binnenkade said. “We’re not going away. As survivors, we have learned to persevere.”

Christopher Keating can be reached at [email protected]