Susan Bigelow

Last week Gov. Ned Lamont removed the head of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, Carleton Giles, following weeks of outrage from crime victims, Republicans, and some Democrats over the recent jump in sentence commutations issued by the board. 

But a few days later, the state Senate approved Giles’s renomination to the board by a vote of 21-14. Republicans were joined by two Democrats in voting against Giles, lambasting the board’s apparent disregard for crime victims and for overstepping its authority, but a clear majority were in favor of keeping him on. 

What’s going on?

The Board of Pardons and Paroles was formed in 2004 by combining the Board of Pardons, which had existed since the late 1800s, and the Board of Parole, which was formed in 1957. State statutes grant the board, an independent agency that is made up of members nominated by the governor and approved by the legislature, broad authority over pardons, parole, and sentence commutations.

For most of its history the board rarely granted commutations, usually issuing only one or two per year. But since June 2021, when the board resumed commutations after a pause during the pandemic to overhaul its policies, it has granted 97.

The high number of commutations began to come to public attention back in March, when victims’ families made an emotional demand that the board slow down the pace and re-evaluate their policies.

But what is that policy, and how did it change?

The current policy allows offenders to apply for a commutation if they have served at least 10 years of a sentence longer than 10 years, without the possibility of re-applying unless new evidence comes to light. In that case, they still must wait at least three years to apply again. Previous policy was more restrictive; this capture from their website in 2017 said that applicants “Must exhaust all judicial remedies before applying and provide proof from court clerk,” and that “Only the most compelling circumstances of miscarriage of justice will be entertained… The applicant must describe and submit evidence of specific extraordinary circumstances or specific exemplary conduct supporting the request for commutation.”

In short, the previous policy was intended for only the most obvious and extraordinary cases, and actively discouraged applicants, which is why there were so few commutations. The change in policy led to a spike in applications, which in turn led to more commutations.

Who is being granted these commutations? Inside Investigator, which is a publication of the Yankee Institute, drew up a list of the 44 people convicted of murder who had their sentences commuted, and noted that they tended to be very young when they committed their crime, they had largely exhausted most legal avenues, and that many had mitigating circumstances like drug use.

The complaints against the board’s new policies are, generally, that the board is releasing violent offenders without consulting victims or victims’ families, that the board is nullifying plea deals that were already in place, and that the board drastically overstepped its authority.

Let’s take that last one first. Sen John Kissel, R-Enfield, said during last week’s debate that “Carleton Giles didn’t mandatorily refer this policy to the Judiciary Committee. He was acting on his own.” But there is nothing in the state statutes requiring the board to consult with the legislature over policy changes. In fact, the board has sweeping authority over pardons, parole, and commutations, and can basically craft whatever policies it thinks are appropriate. Kissel even noted that, but said that Giles had instituted a “policy on steroids.” Still, Giles and the rest of the board had the right to do that. The board instituted its new policy in 2021, so why did the legislature just notice it now?

So what about the claims of victims’ families? There is currently a process in place whereby victims or their families have the right to testify at any hearing of the board, including commutation hearings. And overturning plea deals, that’s certainly going to be a gut-wrenching decision for victims and their families, but there’s nothing that prevents the board from doing that. In fact, very few of the sentences commuted for murderers involved plea deals.

So in essence, the legislature has granted the board these extensive powers, and is now mad that it’s using them. The governor’s replacement of Giles is much more about politics than it is about his conduct, and that’s a shame.

But the larger question remains: lawful or not, is the board’s new, more lenient policy a good idea? Should we be granting commutations at this rate? What should the role of victims and their families be, if that’s the case?

The legislature now has the opportunity to weigh in on this discussion. And it should. But it should not punish the board responsible for simply doing what was asked of it.

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Susan Bigelow

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

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