Criminal justice advocates called Wednesday for the reinstatement of Carlton Giles as chair of the Board of Pardons and Paroles and condemned his removal last month by the governor in response to controversy over a sentence modification program.
Giles, a former police officer who served as chair of the Board of Pardons and Paroles for nearly a decade, sat for an hour in the Legislative Office Building as advocates and formerly incarcerated people praised his work as an administrator of early release programs for those transitioning from prison sentences back into society.
It was a marked departure from recent public discourse around Giles, who became the face of a policy shift at the board that resulted in a significant increase in the number of sentence commutations granted to offenders serving lengthy prison bids.
Families of several murder victims and legislative Republicans publicly condemned the change and Gov. Ned Lamont eventually responded by removing Giles from the leadership position in favor of another board member, Jennifer Medina Zaccagnini. Even Giles’ reappointment to the board as a rank and file member proved controversial and prompted hours of legislative debate.
On Wednesday, Giles’ supporters deemed that treatment both unfair and underhanded, a move designed to punish Giles for doing his job. Criminal defense and civil rights attorney Alex Taubes said Giles’ commutation policy, which broadly allowed offenders to apply for a sentence reduction after serving at least 10 years, had benefited a select few incarcerated individuals.
“This small, tiny first step has caused him to lose his position as the chair? That is completely wrong,” Taubes said. “This is a man who should be honored, held up and cherished for taking the very first steps we need to be taken in this state.”
Under the policy, the board granted commutations to 79 of 310 applicants last year. It denied hearings to 212. The board was more restrained in its use of commutations prior to its 2021 restructure, sometimes granting as few as one or two a year.
Taubes was one of several speakers who called on Lamont to reinstate Giles as chairman and resume granting commutations, which have been put on hold while the board rethinks its eligibility policy. Barbara Fair, organizer of the advocacy group Stop Solitary CT, also demanded Giles’ reinstatement.
Fair directed pointed critiques of the governor and his choices for top leadership positions within the criminal justice system.
“We should start making some demands of the governor that we put in place to represent all of us, not just the rich and wealthy people, not just the people in Greenwich but all of us,” Fair said. “We look at the picks that he’s made and it hasn’t been to represent the people.”
Asked about Giles during an unrelated press conference on Wednesday, Lamont said he felt it was time for new leadership at the Board of Pardons and Paroles.
“[Giles] served our state ably for many years at pardons and paroles, he’s going to still be there but no longer chairman,” Lamont said. “Every once in a while it’s good to have a change.”
Under Zaccagnini’s leadership, the board has suspended commutations and has met with stakeholders including victims advocates to inform new eligibility criteria. Opposition to the current policy centered not only on the number of commutations granted but to the scope of crimes eligible for commutations.
Opponents pointed to data indicating the board approved modifications for 44 murder convictions between 2021 and 2022.
Lawmakers on both sides of the issue generally agree that Giles had the statutory authority to change the board’s policy, even if some argued that he should have sought more explicit approval before making such a consequential change.
On Wednesday, Harvey Fair, brother to Barbara, was one several formerly incarcerated people to speak on behalf of Giles. Fair, who said he now works as a public safety officer for a police department in Virginia, praised the former chairman for helping him secure a pardon.
“I was in Somers. I was in Cheshire. I was in all of these correctional institutions… I am today a mental health tech at a behavioral center,” he said. “I am today working for a police department. I am Officer Fair because he did what he did.”