Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

The state Senate voted Wednesday to reconfirm several members of the Board of Pardons and Paroles including Carleton Giles, the panel’s long standing chairman who was replaced by Gov. Ned Lamont earlier this week. 

The chamber voted 21-14 to return Giles to the board for another term. The vote mostly fell along party lines with Sens. Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury, and Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, joining Republicans in opposition. 

A retired police officer, Giles served as chairman of the board on prison reentry programs from 2014 until Monday, when Lamont announced he would be replaced by another board member, Jennifer Medina Zaccagnini.

The governor made the change in response to a recent controversy over Giles’ implementation of new eligibility criteria for a sentence modification program called commutations. The number of commutations approved by the board have spiked since the 2021 change.

Despite Lamont’s leadership swap, the board’s commutation policy was subjected to scrutiny during Wednesday’s Senate session. Although state law gives the board authority to implement its own policies, Republicans objected to Giles’ decision to move forward with impactful changes without consulting with lawmakers.

“Carleton Giles didn’t mandatorily refer this policy to the Judiciary Committee. He was acting on his own,” Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said. “Granted the statute gave him leeway but he decided to initiate a commutation policy on steroids, like we have never seen here in Connecticut.”

The policy enacted by the board allows offenders to apply for a sentence commutation if they have served at least 10 years of their sentence. Denied applicants can reapply if new evidence surfaces but must wait at least three years. 

The board ceased accepting commutation applications for more than a year during the pandemic but it has granted around 100 since 2021. It’s a stark increase from previous years when few were granted, sometimes as little as one or two a year. 

The Judiciary Committee’s co-chairman Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, agreed that his panel should have been briefed about the new policy, but said it grew out of an ongoing conversation with the legislature regarding the board’s commutation policies. The changes occurred because those policies had not been working, he argued. 

Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, speaks during a press conference on April 12, 2023 Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

“We have a statute in place and as a legislature, the way that statute is written, we’ve given some of our power to the Board of Pardons and Paroles, that clearly people feel we should not have given to them — at least some folks,” Winfield said. “What we do as a legislature is pass new policy if that is the case.”

Sen. Heather Somers, a Groton Republican who thanked Lamont for taking the “bold decision” to remove Giles as chair, read a lengthy list of crimes including murders for which the board had granted commutations.

“I give you those as highlights. Those are just a few. There’s 71 of them that we did last year,” Somers said. “My question in all this is where were the victims’ families? Where was the opportunity for us as a legislature for us to say this is the right thing to do?”

Sen. Stephen Harding, R-Brookfield, argued that Wednesday’s vote was a referendum both on Giles and the direction the board had taken during his tenure as chairman.

“Frankly, by the direction this board has gone under the past two years and under the leadership of Mr. Giles, I would argue that we can not vote for this renomination and say that we stand with the victims at the same time,” Harding said. 

During his remarks, Winfield defended Giles as having done what the state had asked of him even if his methods could have been more transparent. 

“This is about Carleton Giles, who has been the chair of this board, who has followed the law and who has done the things asked,” he said. “We asked him to come up with a policy. They stopped doing what they were doing and came up with a policy.” 

Senate Republicans have been objecting to the increase in commutation since early March and on Wednesday they staged a morning press conference to oppose the renominations in the state Capitol’s Hall of Flags with Audrey Carlson, a Newington mother whose daughter Elizabeth was murdered in 2002.

Audrey Carlson during a press conference Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

“I would really like to have [commutations] halted and have a new set of eyes, ears and hearts that will be directed on making things right and just,” Carlson said. “I would never want to wish what we are going through on any of you.”

Earlier this week, the governor suggested that the board should “take a pause” while lawmakers and stakeholders conduct a planned meeting to evaluate the commutation program going forward. 

On Wednesday, his chief spokesman, Adam Joseph, said that discussion would take place in the next two weeks, before the next scheduled meeting of the Board of Pardons and Paroles and would determine if the board’s process could be improved to ensure commutations balance second chance policies with victims’ perspectives and public safety. 

“Connecticut remains one of the safest states in the nation. To suggest otherwise ignores the facts and ignores reality,” Joseph said. “The Governor has nominated highly qualified, experienced, and respected individuals to serve on the Board of Pardons and Paroles and it is why many of the Senate Republicans voted yes on these nominees in committee.”