Audrey Carlson, one of several crime survivors at the Capitol on April 27, 2023 Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Carleton Giles, a former chair of the state Board of Pardons and Paroles and author of a controversial policy on sentence commutations, won final approval Thursday from the House to return as a member of the board.

The House approved Giles’ nomination on a close 79-67 vote following a heated debate. His nomination cleared the Senate after similar deliberations earlier this month. 

A retired police officer, Giles served as chairman of the Board of Pardons and Paroles from 2014 until April 10, when Gov. Ned Lamont announced he would be replaced by another board member, Jennifer Medina Zaccagnini. 

In demoting Giles, the governor yielded to weeks of controversy over an eligibility policy change which was followed by a sharp spike in the number of sentence commutations granted by the board. 

The panel has since halted commutations while it reconsiders the policy. Stakeholders including advocates, the governor’s office and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have met to plan adjustments to state law, which currently allow the board’s chair to set its policy on commutations.

Matt Ritter and Jason Rojas
House Speaker Matt Ritter and Majority Leader Jason Rojas during a press availability on April 27, 2023 Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Some argued Thursday that the state should take its reassessment of the policy a step further by removing Giles from the board. Linda Binnenkade, a Windsor resident whose brother-in-law was murdered in 2003, was among a group of surviving family members of homicide victims at the state Capitol lobbying legislators to oppose his confirmation. 

“This is not political,” she said during a press conference outside the House chamber. “This is about your public safety. We carry the burden of ensuring those people stay in jail and stay in prison where they can’t hurt your families. Giles created a very flawed and dangerous policy and we’re here today to urge our legislators to vote ‘no’ on his reinstatement to the parole board.”

A majority of lawmakers opted instead to support Giles, even if the resolution did receive ‘no’ votes from every Republican and 15 Democrats. 

It also stirred emotions during a closed door meeting on the subject, according to House Speaker Matt Ritter. Although House Democrats expressed varying points of view on Giles, Ritter said the legislature’s focus was more appropriately placed on Connecticut’s commutation policy going forward. 

“The focus on this gentleman [Giles] is — I get it. He was the chair — but I think the focus really should be on us because we passed that law and our job is to change it,” Ritter said. 

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 after at least three years if new evidence surfaced in their cases.

Rep. Steve Stafstrom, a Bridgeport Democrat who co-chairs the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, told reporters he expected his panel would take action codifying and, in some places, modifying the process outlined in the board’s policy. 

Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, answers questions during a media availability Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

For example, Stafstrom spoke of tailoring notification requirements to ensure that victims and state prosecutors were notified at the appropriate times when offenders apply for commutations. However, he was not inclined to support broad-based restrictions on which offenders may apply for those sentence modifications. 

“You can’t pigeon hole every case into the same sort of policy,” Stafstrom said. “That’s why you allow folks to apply, you do an initial screening review, and certain cases are just summarily rejected before they even get to a full-blown hearing.”

Last year, the board denied hearings to 212 of the 310 offenders who applied for commutations. It ultimately granted commutations to 79 of the applicants, many of them serving lengthy sentences for crimes they committed when they were in their early 20s. 

Stafstrom suggested that Giles had been unfairly maligned for “doing his job,” and was often more conservative with his use of sentence modifications and early release policies than the Judiciary Committee’s leadership would have liked.  

Despite the controversy, members on both sides of the aisle praised Giles’s personality during Thursday’s debate. 

“I love him as a person,” Rep. Craig Fishbein, a Wallingford Republican and ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, said. “I’ve always had good, very healthy conversations [with Giles] about justice in this state.” 

Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, speaks during a floor debate on April 27, 2023. Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

However, Fishbein rejected the notion that the board’s chair had a free hand to implement impactful policy changes. 

“You mean to tell me that this ability to turn on, to turn off the process is vested in one individual who is more powerful than the governor, is not elected by anyone,” Fishbein said. “I offer that that argument just doesn’t make sense and if that was the intent, it has to be changed.” 

Some members argued that slight modifications to the policy would not suffice. Rep. Larry Butler, a Waterbury Democrat whose brother was murdered in 1985, said some offenders should be barred from commutations altogether. 

“We need to make some meaningful changes like how to put in place something to make sure that people who get these long sentences don’t have their sentences commuted by 25 and 35 years,” Butler said. “If you kill somebody, you pretty much forfeit your life.”