Sen. Somers: “It is imperative that victims and their families have a seat at the table.

July 27, 2023

Embattled CT parole board to resume commutations; releases new policy on serious criminals

Hartford Courant
July 27, 2023

After a firestorm of controversy, the state’s parole board will soon resume commutation hearings under a new policy of reducing the sentences of serious criminals.

The intense controversy on the issue led Gov. Ned Lamont to oust the board’s chairman in April and install a new chairwoman, Jennifer Medina Zaccagnini. After months of work with input from a wide variety of state officials, Zaccagnini issued a new, four-page policy that becomes effective Wednesday.

The board will resume the hearings after a three-month suspension sparked by passionate debates in the state legislature when many Republicans complained that the system was too lenient for violent criminals and many Democrats countered that the parole board was simply exercising the authority that it had been granted under state law.
Former board chairman Carleton J. Giles of Milford and two other board members faced public outcry after 71 prisoners had their sentences reduced last year, including 44 convicted of murder.

Seeking to avoid being deluged with new applications, Zaccagnini said the board is interested in documented cases where inmates have been rehabilitated and turned their lives around.

“We will be selective. We are looking for exceptional and compelling circumstances,” Zaccagnini told the Courant in an interview in the board’s Waterbury headquarters. “We don’t want everyone applying just because they can. At one point, we heard that people were applying just because they could.”

Under the rules, applicants must be sentenced to at least 10 years in prison and must serve at least 10 years before they can apply for a reduced sentence.

A board member since 2008, Zaccagnini declined to criticize Giles or blast the board policies that had been criticized by Republicans and some victims’ families. Instead, she said she is looking ahead to enacting the new policies.

Among the changes is that all nine full-time board members will be rotated on and off a special, three-member panel that will decide the commutations. Previously, Giles and two fellow board members made the decisions on the cases, and some board members were left out of the loop.

Another change is that inmates who are denied a reduction in their sentence must wait five years before reapplying for another chance. The previous policy had been three years.

In addition, victims and their families must be notified at least 60 days in advance of the commutation hearing, and prosecutors must be notified at least 30 days in advance. Previously, victims complained about a haphazard system of either failing to be notified or being told unnecessarily of an application when the matter was soon summarily dismissed by the board.

Some legislators said victims’ families suffered needless anxiety to hear about the application only to find out that the case had been quickly dismissed. But other families said they wanted to know all the details of their case, including whether a commutation application had been filed.

Zaccagnini and attorney David G. Bothwell, a former public defender who serves as the parole board’s legislative and administrative adviser, said the board consulted a wide variety of officials while crafting the new policy, including state legislators, corrections, victims services, and the governor’s office, among others.

After months of discussions, Zaccagnini said she believes the new policy is correct.

“We are asking people to trust us and let us roll this out and get the process going again,” she said. “That’s why we’re here. It’s our job. We’re the experts. Let us do our job. We are eager to get going.”

The issue came to a head earlier this year 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. He is currently serving among the nine full-time board members.

In a disclaimer in the first page of the four-page policy, the board used strong language to state its position.

“No person, under any circumstances, has a right or entitlement to a commutation,” the policy says. “The decision to grant a commutation is a matter of unfettered discretion and unmitigated grace or mercy.

Furthermore, participation in the commutation process may be limited or eliminated altogether, at any time, at the discretion of the board.”

Senate Republican leader Kevin Kelly of Stratford and Sen. Heather Somers of Groton held numerous press conferences on the issue and met with the victims’ families as they raised public awareness on the matter. 

They are satisfied by the progress so far by Zaccagnini and say they will continue to monitor the board in the months ahead.

“She has done impressive work in bringing the stakeholders together to determine a more comprehensive and fairer commutation policy, but we must remain vigilant,” the Republican senators said in a statement. “We strongly believe that the process must be open and transparent, and it is imperative that victims and their families have a seat at the table. As such, victims and their families need to be notified if the perpetrator is applying for a commutation.”

House Republican leader Vincent Candelora of North Branford said the new policy is a positive first step, but he would like to see the changes codified into state law when the legislature convenes in February.

“This policy that they’ve adopted is substantially similar to the bill that was passed in the House and died in the Senate,” Candelora said in an interview. “What I appreciate is that the policy is now in writing, as opposed to allowing one individual to set policy on a whim, which I think is what we saw Chairman Giles do.”

A problem, Candelora said, is that the policy allows the chair to waive the rules if deemed appropriate, such as re-hearing a case sooner that five years after the first rejection.

“Overall, these rules are an improvement of the past, but we really have to keep an eye on how this board operates,” he said. “As a legislature, we don’t want carte blanche power to lie with any individual. I do think that [Zaccagnini] has made an effort to communicate with judiciary leadership and work on these rules so they weren’t necessarily crafted in a vacuum, and so we are certainly appreciative of that. I still think it should be codified at some point, but absent the law being passed this year, she’s trying to put guardrails around the process and put transparency and clarity to it.”

After widespread controversy at the legislature that spilled onto the floors of the state House of Representatives and Senate, the issue has quieted in recent months as the hearings were suspended.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” Candelora said. “Absent the legislature being able to put forth rules, I think this is the second-best alternative that the board came up with. It’s the second-best way to do things. In the meantime, the board can continue on its work and not be tied up based on a legislative clock.”