Connecticut’s Board of Pardons and Paroles began accepting commutation applications this week for the first time since April, when controversy prompted a change in the board’s leadership and a review of the criminal sentence modification program.
On Wednesday, the board posted its new commutation eligibility policy, the product of weeks of review and input from a range of stakeholders. That effort occurred after Gov. Ned Lamont paused the program and replaced the board’s longtime chairman, Carleton Giles, in response to criticisms that his policies had led to a spike in the number of criminal sentence reductions.
The new policy, signed by current chairperson, Jennifer Medina Zaccagnini, still allows offenders to apply for a sentence reduction after they have served at least 10 years in prison. However, the new standards are meant to be more discerning, placing a greater emphasis on requiring participating offenders to demonstrate their efforts at rehabilitation.
“No person, under any circumstances, has a right or entitlement to a commutation,” a disclaimer in the new policy reads. “The decision to grant a commutation is a matter of unfettered discretion and unmitigated grace or mercy.”
In an interview on Thursday, David Bothwell, an attorney who serves as the board’s legislative and administrative advisor, said the panel expects that offenders will present extraordinary circumstances or compelling reasons why they deserve to have their sentences reduced.
“What we did is we put it more on the offender to make their case to the board as to why they believe they deserve consideration,” he said. “What I’ve heard in discussions is that the board is going to be selective. They’re really looking for cases where someone can present extraordinary circumstances.”
The new guidelines include a longer, five-year, waiting period for denied offenders wishing to reapply. It also includes a 60-day notice requirement for the state Office of Victim Services to notify victims and their families before a commutation hearing is conducted. The policy includes a similar, 30-day notice for state prosecutors.
The board has received at least one commutation application since the new guidelines were posted on Wednesday, Bothwell said. The notice requirements mean it will be at least a couple months before a hearing is held.
Controversy over the old policy began early this year. In March, Senate Republicans hosted a press conference where legislators and the surviving families of several murder victims objected to a stark increase in the number of commutations after the program was brought back online following an earlier pandemic-era pause. The panel granted 71 commutations last year, according to state statistics.
Those commutations led to several lengthy debates about the program in the state legislature and an unsuccessful effort to prevent the reinstatement of Giles, a former police officer, as a rank and file member of the board.
Meanwhile, Giles’ supporters celebrated his career in May and unsuccessfully pushed to have him restored as chair of the board.
The legislature also considered a bill to codify a new commutations policy in statute. Despite passing the House, the legislation expired on the Senate calendar at the end of the session.
In a joint statement on Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly and Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, praised Zaccagnini for bringing in stakeholders to develop “a more comprehensive and fairer commutation policy” but said they would continue to monitor the board.
“We strongly believe that the process must be open and transparent, and it is imperative that victims and their families have a seat at the table,” Kelly and Somers said. “As such, victims and their families need to be notified if the perpetrator is applying for a commutation.”
That need for transparency has motivated much of the board’s actions on commutations since Zaccagnini assumed the leadership post, Bothwell said.
“There were some claims that we created the policy in the dark. We wanted to be as open and transparent as possible with this policy,” he said. “That’s why we held the meetings and got so much input from different stakeholders. It’s posted on our website now.”