Senate Republicans move to block House bill over commutation changes

May 30, 2023

Senate Republicans move to block House bill over commutation changes

By Marc E. Fitch
CT Inside Investigator
May 30, 2023

Connecticut’s Senate Republicans say they have 41 amendments ready to call should the Senate take up a bill passed by the House of Representatives that will change the circumstances under which commutations can be granted and the role victims play in that commutation process.

“When we saw the bill that came from the House, we said to ourselves this is not appropriate, this is not adequate, this does a disservice to the victims and their families,” said Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, and ranking member on the Judiciary Committee. “We’re going to amend that bill and discuss it till the cows come home.”

Republicans in both the House and Senate raised the alarm over a dramatic increase in commutations in 2022, which included 44 commutations for individuals incarcerated for murder.

The resultant outcry saw Carleton Giles removed as chairman of the Board of Pardons and Paroles by Gov. Ned Lamont and a working group formed to examine the commutation process. Kissel said there was only one meeting of the working group.

However, under an amendment attached to House Bill 6738, which creates a release panel for medical and compassionate release and parole during emergency declarations, commutation policies would be altered.

The amendment bans commutation for those serving life sentences, does not alert victim families when an incarcerated individual applies for a commutation but is denied, and requires permission be granted for victims to be present during the commutation hearing.

The amendment was offered by Judiciary Committee co-chairs Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Stamford, and Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, along with ranking member Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, and received bipartisan support in the House.

But Senate Republicans say the amendment is violating victims’ rights by not notifying them of commutation applications and requiring permission for them to be present during the hearing, and ignored recommendations made by the new BOPP Chairwoman Jennifer Medina Zaccagnini.

“Unfortunately, history is repeating itself,” said Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton. “Last week an amendment came out of the house without our Senate involved, an amendment that absolutely disregarded everything the new chair had proposed. It was absolutely dismissed.”

“So, I have to say; did the governor appoint a new woman chair just for show? Or are we really going to change the policy here for the Board of Pardons and Paroles,” Somers said, saying the proposed fix to Connecticut’s commutation policy is “just the illusion,” of a fix.

Victims’ families who spoke at the press conference decried the fact that they would not be notified if the perpetrator applied for commutation but was denied – a change likely intended to reduce the stress caused on families – and could possibly not participate in the commutation hearing.

According to the bill analysis, the commutation panel is required to allow participation by the incarcerated individual and attorneys for both the applicant and the state but falls short of saying the victim’s family other than “any other person authorized by the panel’s chairperson who can provide relevant testimony.”

But the amended bill also faces headwinds from criminal justice reform advocates who favor commutations for incarcerated individuals, primarily because the amendment eliminates commutations for those serving 60 years or more, effectively life sentences.

Writing in the Hartford Courant, Yale Law School lecturer Daniel Loehr called the bill “morally bankrupt,” and said it denies mercy to the 368 Connecticut residents currently incarcerated with life sentences.

Second chance advocates on Twitter circulated a post saying the resultant change will make Connecticut’s “commutation law harsher than it was in the 1800s.”
“The Board has had the authority to commute any sentence for any crime,” the digital flyer said. “Now, in 2023, our democratic state government is trying to roll back centuries of precedent and ensure that nearly a hundred Connecticut residents die in prison, and that many others are excluded from commutation and have to serve far more time in prison.”

At the time of the press conference, it was unknown whether the bill would be taken up today in the Senate. With little more than a week left in session, a lengthy battle in the Senate could hamper other legislation sought by lawmakers.

“We have a victims’ rights amendment in our state Constitution,” Kissel said. “They are protected by the state Constitution. I believe – just personally, I can’t speak for my Senate Republican colleagues – that we would be better served if we had no bill this year and let chairwoman Zaccagnini do her work because the bill that’s being handed up to us from the House actually takes a step back.”