Connecticut’s Board of Pardons and Paroles has temporarily stopped accepting applications for sentence commutations this month in response to controversy over an increase in the number of sentence modifications it has granted over the last two years.
The pause represents the second time in the last several years in which the board has ceased accepting applications for commutations while it restructures its eligibility criteria.
The board halted commutations for more than a year during the pandemic and emerged from that break in 2021 with new eligibility standards that have been followed by a sharp increase in the number of commutations it granted.
That spike was met with outrage from the families of some murder victims and Republican legislators. The controversy resulted in Gov. Ned Lamont replacing the board’s longtime chair, Carleton Giles, with Jennifer Medina Zaccagnini earlier this month.
Zaccagnini, a member of the board since 2008, ordered the pause after she took over as chair on April 10, according to Richard Sparaco, the board’s executive director.
“She [Zaccagnini] has heard all of these concerns. The goal is to revisit those concerns and determine how she would like to revisit or revise where the process currently is at and where she wants to go with it in the future,” Sparaco said. “It’s only temporary though. This is not permanent.”
The board plans to resume accepting commutation applications within the next few months, according to a note on its website.
During a series of legislative sessions, lawmakers objected to Giles’ implementation of the eligibility policy without first seeking approval from the legislature. However, they acknowledged that state law permitted him to do so.
The policy allowed offenders to apply for a sentence commutation if they had served at least 10 years of their sentence. Denied applicants could reapply if new evidence surfaced but the policy required they wait at least three years.
Between the launch of the eligibility rules in June of 2021 and this month, the board granted 114 sentence modifications under the program. Many of those offenders were serving lengthy sentences for violent crimes they committed when they were young.
According to statistics through the end of 2022, offenders granted commutations were of an average age of 22.6 years old when they committed their offenses. Sentence modifications granted by the board averaged a reduction of about 15.4 years of prison time.
When Lamont removed Giles as chairman earlier this month, he said the change would be followed by a meeting of stakeholders, lawmakers, and advocates to discuss new eligibility rules for commutations.
That meeting took place Wednesday afternoon, according to the governor’s chief spokesman, Adam Joseph. It included administration staff, advocates, and the bipartisan leaders of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, he said.
“It was a collaborative and bipartisan meeting with various stakeholders to assure the commutation process continues to balance the importance of second chances and that the perspective of victims and public safety are considered,” Joseph said. “[The legislators] are going to work with their caucuses to examine the commutation process and determine if there needs to be any statutory changes.”
The Democratic chairs of the Judiciary Committee did not immediately return requests for comment Thursday.
Senate Republican leaders, who held press events with the families of murder victims objecting to the spike in commutations, issued a press release applauding the decision to halt the process.
“We continue to push for an open and transparent process where every victim, lawmaker, prosecutor, and defense attorney has input on how this commutations policy should be revised,” Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, said. “We need to decide collectively what that policy is — what is fair, what is just, and what is right. Through engagement and through dialogue, we can make survivors’ voices heard and effect positive change.”