Audrey Carlson Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Surviving family members of murder victims made an emotional call Tuesday for Connecticut to slow the commutation of prison sentences and reevaluate eligibility changes in response to a dramatic increase in the number of commutations.

Connecticut’s Board of Pardons and Parole, an autonomous panel with members nominated by the governor, has the authority to grant pardons and in certain circumstances commute the sentences of offenders serving lengthy prison sentences. The board stopped the commutation process for two years during the pandemic while it overhauled its policies.

In June of 2021, it resumed that process and in the time since, has commuted the sentences of 97 people. Those sentence reductions provoked stirring pushback from a group of surviving family members who joined Senate Republicans for a press conference in the Legislative Office Building.

“This is wrong,” said Audrey Carlson, a Newington mother whose daughter Elizabeth was murdered by her ex-boyfriend, Jonathan Carney, in 2002. The incident left her devastated and “part of a club that nobody wants to belong to: the survivors of homicide.”

“Imagine the unimaginable for just a second: your world crashes in around you, you’re caught in a riptide, you can’t breathe and just when you think and you feel you might find your way, you learn that your killer might be set free,” she said. 

Carlson and others argued that commutations betrayed the confidence of survivors and undermined the terms of plea deals, in which offenders and families agree to lesser terms of incarceration in a tradeoff meant to avoid the emotional strain of lengthy trials and numerous appeals.

“We believed we had a binding agreement only to find out there were loopholes,” Leslie Carlson Schlachter, Elizabeth’s surviving sister, said. “This changed our stance on the plea agreement completely. If we had had this information prior, we might have gone to trial and Jonathan might have received a sentence of 60 years.”

Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly lifts a stack of commutation applications Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

When the parole board began accepting commutation applications again in 2021, Carney was one of 393 people who applied. Like 296 others, he was denied. 

Under the board’s current policy, an offender can be eligible to apply for a commutation if they are serving a sentence of at least 10 years and have already been incarcerated for at least that long. Additionally, they must not be within two years of parole eligibility. If an applicant is denied a commutation, they are not permitted to apply again unless some new evidence comes to light after the board’s decision. In that case, they must wait at least three years to reapply.

The Carlson family asked that the board’s rules be amended to exempt any offender who accepted a plea deal for murder. Schlachter said the exemption should only apply to offenders who were at least 25 years-old at the time of the crime. The family would also like to see the mandatory waiting period before an offender can resubmit an application extended to five years. 

Republican lawmakers at the press conference called the number of recent commutations “shocking” and “outrageous.” They called on the governor to suspend the process until the increase is explained.

“Let’s just take a step back because I am absolutely appalled — devastated by what I’ve learned and I am calling on Governor Lamont: stop this right now,” Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said. 

In a statement, Lamont said that despite a rise in commutations since mid-2021, Connecticut remained among the safest states in the nation. However, he seemed open to reevaluating the state’s commutation system with the state legislature. 

“Given the substantial progress the Board already has made in hearing commutation cases, it’s time to step back and see how the policy is working,” Lamont said. “The seriousness of the topic demands a careful approach involving the General Assembly as well as stakeholders, especially victims.”

Independent of legislative action, the heightened rate of commutations may be a temporary phenomenon. In an interview Tuesday, Richard Sparaco, executive director of the Board of Pardons and Parole, said there are a finite number of incarcerated individuals eligible to apply for commutation and many of them did so when the system came back online in 2021. 

Sparaco speculated that a combination of factors led to the influx of commutation applications received by his panel, things like the long suspension of applications and the COVID-19 pandemic which negatively impacted life in state prisons. 

“I think we’ve seen a peak in applicants and slowly they’ll start to dissipate because the [Department of Correction] population in regard to this pool is finite,” Sparaco said. 

In some ways, Sparaco argued the recent overhaul of the board’s commutation process restricted the pool of applicants eligible to apply. 

Asked about the request by families that offenders who accepted plea agreements be excluded from the commutation process, Sparaco declined to weigh in on whether or not it should be adopted. However, he did note that commutations have existed in Connecticut since 1883.

“If somebody tells somebody in court, ‘This is a plea agreement, it’s iron-clad. This person will never be released.’ That’s erroneous. There are options after somebody leaves court,” he said.