Gov. Ned Lamont following a press conference on April 10, 2023 Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Gov. Ned Lamont on Monday named Jennifer Medina Zaccagnini to replace Carleton Giles as chair of the Board of Pardons and Parole amid controversy over a recent increase in the number of criminal sentence commutations approved by the board. 

Giles, a former police officer who has served as the board’s chair for the past nine years, is expected to be reconfirmed as a member of the board by the state Senate during a session on Wednesday. 

However, Lamont said he plans to choose a new chairperson to lead the panel charged with determining offender eligibility for prison reentry programs like parole. Giles and the board have come under fire for implementing a 2021 policy that has led to an increase in sentence modifications called commutations, which had been rarely used in the past.

“I think Mr. Giles has served ably for a long time and I think, as you know, I’m making a lot of changes,” Lamont said following an unrelated morning press conference. 

In an early afternoon press release, Lamont thanked Giles and announced that board member Zaccagnini would take over the leadership role.

“Jennifer has served as a member of the Board of Pardons and Paroles for the last 15 years, and her experience will lead the board’s pursuit of less crime and safer communities for Connecticut’s residents,” the governor said. 

The commutation change has prompted opposition from the families of some Connecticut victims and dominated the legislative hearings and floor debates over Lamont’s renomination of board members. 

On Monday, the governor stopped short of calling the shift in policy a mistake, but said he had called for a meeting to be conducted in the next two weeks, when stakeholders including advocates and lawmakers would negotiate rules for future commutations. 

“I would say there were a lot of pardons in a short period of time,” Lamont said. “Maybe it’s time to take a pause and let the legislature weigh in on what they think the rules of the road ought to be and make sure the advocates on both sides are at the table so we have a full discussion.”

Under the board’s current policy, offenders 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. Applicants who are denied may reapply if new evidence comes to light, but must wait at least three years.

The panel has approved around 100 sentence modifications since it began accepting applications again in 2021 after more than a year’s suspension of the program. Although commutations have been on the books in Connecticut since 1883, prior to the change, the board used commutations sparingly, often approving only one or two a year. 

Much of the opposition to the change has come from legislative Republicans. Over the last several weeks, they have argued against both the use of commutations to reduce sentences in cases involving violent crimes and the board’s decision to shift its policy without legislative approval. 

In a statements Monday, Republican minority leaders Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford and Sen. Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, welcomed Lamont’s announcement but said it did not take back the sentence modifications already approved by the board.

“The change of leadership within the Board of Pardons and Paroles is welcome news but relegating the former chairman to a regular seat on the board doesn’t wash away how or why the egregious spike in sentence commutations occurred,” Candelora said. “Like most residents, I hope this change is a starting point for what Connecticut really needs—better policy that prioritizes the concerns of crime victims.”

Democrats including Lamont and the chairs of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee maintain that state law gives the chairman of the Pardons and Parole Board the authority to set the panel’s policy without express approval from the legislature. 

On Monday, Sen. Gary Winfield, a New Haven Democrat who co-chairs the committee, said much of the controversy has stemmed from the board’s reluctance to grant commutations in the past. 

“We had not been doing it, we began doing and unfortunately what happens when you do that is, if you don’t recognize the fact that the bump is not because we all of the sudden decided to commute all these sentences and we’re just reckless, but it’s because they hadn’t been doing what they were supposed to be doing,” he said.

Winfield said the departure of Giles from the leadership role may worry some in the criminal justice field who view the former chair as a reliable partner. 

“There are people who are, I’m sure, going to be very concerned about the ship, people who in the time Carleton has been there have come to see him as somebody who is pretty even-measured and somebody who can be worked with,” Winfield said. “I think there will be concern about who the replacement is.”

Giles issued a statement Monday afternoon through Richard Sparaco, the board’s executive director.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to have served the citizens of this state Connecticut for the past 43 years in public safety as both a police officer and a member of the Board of Pardons and Parole,” Giles said. “I’d like to thank the governor for his confidence in appointing me twice to serve on the board and I look forward to the future and my continued service.”