Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, talks with House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora during a debate on April 5, 2023 Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Lawmakers in the House argued for two hours on Wednesday over a recent spike in the number of criminal sentence commutations approved by the state Board of Pardons and Parole before the chamber took divided votes to reconfirm members of the panel.

Much of the debate occurred on a resolution to return Michael Pohl, a former teacher from Manchester, to the board responsible for crafting policy and determining eligibility related to prison reentry programs like parole or sentence modification mechanisms like commutations.

Pohl, who was first appointed by former Gov. Dannel Malloy and reappointed by Gov. Ned Lamont, served as a springboard for a debate over commutation policy because he is one of three board members who sit on a panel overseeing those sentence modifications, the number of which have risen exponentially since 2021, when the board restructured its eligibility criteria.

As a result, all of the chamber’s Republicans and 11 Democrats voted against Pohl, who was approved 85 – 61. 

“What they [the board] have been empowered to do by themselves — not by this legislature — is to review past convictions of a very lengthy nature and then to determine, themselves, whether or not those convictions are going to be modified,” Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, said at the outset of the debate. 

The lengthy dispute during Wednesday’s House session was a continuation of a conversation that began at the state Capitol last month, when Senate Republicans hosted relatives of Connecticut murder victims

The family members objected to the board’s new policy which allows offenders to apply for a commutation if they have served at least 10 years of their sentence and are not within two years of parole eligibility. Applicants who are denied may reapply if new evidence comes to light, but must wait at least three years. 

The board has been inundated with applications since the new policy went into effect, an outcome its executive director attributed last month both to a long pause between 2019 and 2021, when the board accepted no applications, as well as the difficult conditions within Connecticut prisons during the pandemic.

In any case, the panel had received nearly 400 applications as of March, of which around 300 had been denied. And the 97 offenders who were approved to have sentences reduced represented a stark increase over prior years when the board often approved just one or two commutations annually.

Rep. Greg Howard, R-Stonington, read a long list of sentences for murder convictions that had been reduced through commutations by the board.

“For me to stand here and put my stamp of approval, effectively, on this process and the commutations that have happened during that two-year time is not only, in my opinion, a slap in the face of our criminal justice system but it does not bode well for the safety and well-being of the people of Connecticut,” Howard said. 

Sentence commutations have existed in Connecticut since 1883. Rep. Steve Stafstrom, a Bridgeport Democrat who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee, highlighted the policy’s longevity during Wednesday’s debate and characterized the recent eligibility modifications as clarifications rather than changes.

More than one lawmaker objected to the fact that the board had altered its policies without legislative approval. Stafstrom noted that the new eligibility requirements had been implemented not by Pohl but by the board’s chair, Carleton Giles, whose renomination the state Senate will consider in the coming weeks. 

Rep. Jason Doucette, D-Manchester, praised Pohl as a dedicated advocate for people in recovery from substance abuse issues, whose nomination should not be hindered by a controversial commutation policy.  

Regarding that policy, Doucette said the legislature had given the board the flexibility to establish its rules through statute. The lawmakers were free to revisit that statute if they felt it should be modified, he said. 

“But make no mistake: we are voting on a nominee today to the Board of Pardons and Parole,” Doucette said. “I appreciate the discussion on the policy but the statutory authority governing the policy is clear and that is a discussion for another day.”

Not all Democrats agreed. Rep. Larry Butler, a Waterbury Democrat whose brother was murdered in 1985, voted against Pohl and board members he said he knew personally. For almost 15 minutes, Butler questioned the judgment of the board and encouraged lawmakers to focus on protecting crime victims.

“When is somebody going to stand up for victims rights?” he said. “Really. We help people who commit crimes come back out here but who’s going to stand up for the victims? Well, today is the day that I plan to take the stand. I’m voting ‘no.’”