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April 13, 2023

Amid shakeup on CT parole board, questions over commutations

MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG Audrey Carlson, center, whose daughter, Elizabeth, was murdered, lobbies Sen. MD Rahman for tighter standards on sentence commutations. Her friend, Jan Kritzman, shows Rahman a photo Carlson's daughter.

With no apparent notice to the governor or lawmakers, the Board of Pardons and Paroles began using its rarely employed power of commutations last year to reduce the sentences of 71 inmates, including 44 doing time for murder.

The ramifications of that change loudly echoed Wednesday at the state Capitol, where the mother of a murdered daughter lobbied for stricter standards and the Senate divided over the reappointment of a board member behind the change.

Gov. Ned Lamont on Monday removed Carleton J. Giles, who claimed sole responsibility for driving the change, as chair of the board but did not withdraw Giles’ nomination to a third five-year term on the panel.

The Senate ultimately voted Wednesday to confirm Giles, a retired Norwalk police officer and ordained minister, on a vote of 21-14, with Democrats Joan Hartley of Waterbury and Cathy Osten of Sprague joining all 12 Republicans in opposition.

No one questioned that Giles had acted within statutory authority, and Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, noted that his intent to resume commutations after a hiatus was reported by the CT Mirror in June 2021.

“Some of us may not have been aware of it,” Winfield said. “But this was not secret in a way that I think some of us imagined it is, given the way that the public conversation has taken place.”

But lawmakers said it was the scope of the resumption — the board had not commuted more than three sentences in any one of the past six years — that came as a shock to policy makers and the families of victims.

“Granted, the statute gave him leeway,” said Sen. John Kissel of Enfield, the ranking Senate Republican on the Judiciary Committee. “But he decided to initiate a commutation policy on steroids like we have never seen here in the state of Connecticut.”

Kissel, a lawyer in his 30th year in the Senate, said he and other lawmakers were surprised to learn the degree to which they had delegated commutation powers to the board with few standards.

“If you look and dig into the statutes, there’s not a lot of detail there as to what they can or cannot do,” Kissel said.

Lobbying for a change already was underway Wednesday from Audrey Carlson of Newington, whose 24-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, was shot to death by an ex-boyfriend, Jonathan Carney, in 2002.

Carlson told reporters her family had been comforted by what they saw as the finality of a plea deal that guaranteed Carney a 42-year prison sentence. Then they were notified he was seeking a commutation.

“We accepted a 42-year contract — ironclad — knowing and trusting that this system is going to work for us. Well, guess what? We were wrong,” Carlson said. “ All I’m asking is for a level of diplomacy and compromise, an understanding with respect. This is not political. This is just.”

Carney’s application for a commutation hearing was rejected in the pre-screening process, as was the case in two-third of the requests filed in 2022. Of the 79 that went to full hearings, 71 commutations were granted.

In removing Giles as chair, Lamont also committed to a roundtable discussion with stakeholders to assess whether changes are needed in law or policy regarding commutations.

“I’m here first to thank Gov. Lamont for taking prompt action and removing Mr. Giles and setting the course of the BOPP in a new and more rational direction,” Carlson said before the Senate convened.

Before the session, Carlson lingered outside the chamber, engaging senators in conversation about potential changes.

Lamont has not committed to any change other than a new chair.

“The administration is gathering stakeholders before the board’s next scheduled meeting to determine if its process can be improved, and to ensure that the commutation process balances the importance of second chances for Connecticut prisoners, the perspectives of victims, and public safety considerations,” said Adam Joseph, the governor’s communications director.

Republicans tried to equate a vote for Giles as an endorsement of the jump in commutations.

“We’re voting on the direction of this particular board,” said Sen. Stephen Harding, R-Brookfield. “And the question that we as legislators, as senators, in my opinion, we have to answer is: Do we support that direction? Yes or no?”

“I want to applaud the governor for asking Mr. Giles to no longer be the chair, but he’s still, if he’s confirmed today, he’s still going to be on this board. And I think that’s a huge mistake,” said Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton.

Somers recited a partial roster of the murders whose sentences were reduced.

According to the board’s statistics, the biggest reduction went to a 39-year-old inmate who served 23 years of an 85-year sentence for a crime committed as a 17-year-old. The 44 inmates doing time for murder were granted commutations that took an average of 14 years off 44-year sentences.

“That is a decision that should be made here in the legislative body, not by a lay board,” Somers said.

Giles was defended Wednesday by some lawmakers — to a point.

Sen. Herron Gaston, D-Bridgeport, an ordained Christian minister, said forgiveness is central to his faith.

“So I do believe in restoration, I do believe in forgiveness and compassionate forgiveness,” Gaston said. “So I just rise and say that I support Carleton Giles, someone with whom I have a deep admiration and respect for.”

Winfield, the Judiciary co-chair, said Giles and two other board members who served on three-member commutation panels had been responding to lawmakers who wanted to see commutations explored.

He flawed them on approach.

“Should they have brought it to the Judiciary Committee? Absolutely,” Winfield said. “But it is not going against the law we have. It is not just something done under the cover of darkness.”

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