Questions around a recent increase in the number of criminal sentence commutations dominated a sometimes tense hearing of the Judiciary Committee on Monday as lawmakers weighed the reappointment of members of Connecticut’s Board of Pardons and Parole.
The committee held a hearing on the renomination of eight existing members and two new members of the board, which is responsible for crafting policy and determining eligibility related to prison re-entry programs like parole or sentence modification mechanisms like commutations.
The event provided legislative Republicans an opportunity to interrogate the board, which has commuted 97 sentences since it resumed the practice in June 2021 following a pause and restructuring of its eligibility requirements. Earlier this month, Republicans and the families of several murder victims objected to the spike in commutations during a Hartford press conference.
Following the hearing, the panel voted to confirm the board members’ nominations.
In many cases the votes were unanimous, however, some Republican members voted against three members who make up a panel with oversight of commutations. Those members were the board’s chair, Carleton Giles, as well as Michael E. Pohl, and Deborah Smith Palmier.
Many of Monday’s inquiries were directed at Giles and came from Sen. John Kissel, an Enfield Republican who questioned whether the board had the authority to change its own policies in a way that resulted in a substantial increase in the number of commutations.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is a sea change — this is a huge shift,” Kissel said. “It’s a shift from one or two per year to what my understanding was upwards of over 70 in . Was it just your idea that there hasn’t been enough time taken off of inmate prison terms?”
Under the board’s policy, an offender can apply for a commutation if they have served at least 10 years of their sentence and are not 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.
Giles said state law gave his board the authority to implement its own policies and rejected the notion that the increase was a sudden departure. He argued that the expansion was part of a broader shift in Connecticut’s approach to criminal justice, which policymakers had been formulating for years.
“All of these things are sorta percolating in criminal justice and much of it we worked on with this committee,” Giles said. “In fact, I’ve been in your conference room to deal with some of these things prior.”
Occasionally during the hearing, Giles seemed flustered by the tone of questioning from familiar lawmakers and, at times, he struggled to recall requested statistics or find answers in his reference materials. At one point, he sought to remind Kissel of his earlier support.
“Senator, of course, we’ve had your confidence across the years on this with our training and experience that we’ve been doing some things correct and we’ve been very grateful and all of us are hoping to have your support again to continue on with this work we’re doing,” Giles said.
“Nah, not on this one,” Kissel answered. Later, he told Giles he was “mystified” by the board’s policy. “I know that you feel that you’re acting in simpatico with the legislature but not with this legislator. I really wish that this had been bounced off of us before it was implemented.”
Kissel said he respected Giles and acknowledged the two had known each other for years. He asked Giles, a retired Norwalk police officer, to reflect on his law enforcement career and whether he had once expected offenders to serve the entirety of their sentences. When Giles answered that he had.
“What changed?” Kissel asked.
“Well, I’ve lived and I’ve seen things and I’ve learned,” Giles said. “And I think, you know, life can be different.”
The Democratic co-chairs of the committee, Sen. Gary Winfield and Rep. Steve Stafstrom, both told Giles they believed his panel acted within state statute when it implemented the new commutation policy.
Stafstrom, a lawyer from Bridgeport, said the board could have been more aggressive when it came to sentence reductions.
“We, frankly, were frustrated by the Board of Pardons and Paroles at times over the last several years for not doing enough,” Stafstrom said. “Particularly during the pandemic. We thought the board had more power and more authority to grant compassionate medical releases for example, and we expressed our frustration to you on many occasions.”
Members of the public weighed in on both sides of the issue. Norman Gaines, Jr. had been serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole on a 1996 double murder committed when he was 16 years old. The U.S. Supreme Court later abolished life without parole sentences for minors and last year, the state parole board granted him a sentence commutation.
On Monday, Gaines told the committee he had been working to set a good example.
“When I was talking to the panel at the Board of Pardons and Parole, that I would do my best to be a beacon of the community, I would like them to know I’ve been keeping my word,” Gaines said. “And I’m just one of many.”
Meanwhile, Genna Giamatteo asked the committee to reconsider the nominations. Giamatteo was a friend of Elizabeth Carlson, a Newington resident who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in 2002. She said Carlson’s family believed the offender’s prison sentence was “iron-clad” under a plea agreement.
“Elizabeth’s family started serving their life sentence the day Elizabeth was taken away from them and now every three years they must relive this horrific day, praying their daughter’s killer is not set free,” Giamatteo said. “This is absurd and I’m asking the Judiciary Committee to not reappoint these Board of Pardon and Parole members until the commutation policy has been revised.”