Acknowledging an increased understanding in the science of brain development, the Board of Pardons and Paroles has commuted the sentences of 11 men who committed crimes when they were 25 or younger.
Every man was serving a sentence for murder, felony murder or attempted murder. Each has been incarcerated for their entire adult lives. Many have spent more time in prison than the age they were at the time of their crimes.
“I understand that it may come across as egotistical or hypocritical that I am asking for mercy after committing such a crime,” said Moises Polanco, who was convicted of felony murder and is now 40 years old. “But to that I can only respond that I am not the same 18-year-old who committed those acts.” Polanco received a commutation of nine years, 11 months and six days, making him eligible for review by the DOC for community supervision.
A law that took effect in 2015 retroactively ended life without parole sentences for people who committed capital murder and arson when they were younger than age 18, but the board’s commutations speak to an emerging consensus among the scientific and social justice communities that brain development continues until age 25.
Lawmakers tried to extend parole eligibility during the last legislative session through a bill that would have allowed parole review for those who committed a crime before they were 25. The measure failed, but the Board of Pardons and Paroles appears to be following the spirit of that bill in the latest round of commutations.
“I’m very proud to live in the state of Connecticut, where the Board of Pardons and Paroles recognizes the change in science and is bringing the forefront of science to our criminal justice system,” Alex Taubes, an attorney who represented five of the men over the past three weeks, said to board members at one of the hearings.
The Board of Pardons and Paroles held hearings for the 11 prisoners over the past three weeks. None of the men will walk out of prison immediately; many of the sentences were shortened just enough so that the Department of Correction could screen the men for supervised released and offer them resources in the community rather than just letting them go home with no support.
“Someone who’s been incarcerated this long, I think, needs a set of eyes on his life and a safety net underneath them,” Chairperson Carleton Giles said during one of the hearings, words he would repeat in just about every person’s case. “We are not able to provide that, except by if we do something with this sentence this morning, and in partnership with DOC, they will have the authority to provide the supervision that I am wanting that I can’t provide.”
Board members have commuted a dozen sentences since revamping its program and accepting new applications in June 2021. They commuted Michael Cox’s sentence in November, shaving 30 years off the 75-year sentence of a profoundly sick man who participated in extensive rehabilitative programming in the three decades he spent behind bars. Cox was the first commutation the board had granted in two years.
Some who received a commutation for a crime committed when they were under age 18 had their sentences reduced so they could have a parole hearing in the near future. If they are granted that form of release in a separate, future hearing, they would be under parole supervision for the remainder of their sentence.
All the men whose sentences were shortened participated in rehabilitative programming over their decades in prison. They took college courses, earned GEDs and mentored incarcerated youth.
Many talked about their lives before prison. They described traumatic childhoods in impoverished communities where the lure of gangs and drugs was stronger than positive influences.
“I done lost myself in the street web, and became trapped,” said Oscar Melendez, who is now 23 years into a 31-year sentence for a murder he committed at 19. “I turned into this young adolescent who was alive but never truly lived.”
The board reduced Melendez’s sentence by six years so he will be eligible for review for community supervision in 2024.
During their hearings, board members asked the men how they would serve youth from similar backgrounds once they were out of prison.
“There’s a lot of gun violence out here right now and the experience that you have is important to put an end to that,” Mike Pohl, a board member, told Ernest Francis after he said he planned on working with the New Britain Racial Justice Coalition once he is released. Francis, who is serving a 50-year sentence for felony murder, was 18 at the time he committed his crime. He has been incarcerated for 31 years. His sentence was shortened by three years, one month and a day.
Others offered their thoughts on why young people join gangs, recounting the path they took that led to tragedy that irrevocably changed their and others’ lives.
“They looking for love in the wrong places — can’t find it at home, so you run in the streets,” said Pedro Carrasquillo, explaining how, once he’s released, he plans on speaking with young people who grew up like he did so he can help them choose a different path. Carrasquillo, serving a 35-year sentence for felony murder, was 15 at the time of his crime. The board commuted his sentence by five years.
Several men talked about how they were in recovery from drug and alcohol addictions, taking their rehabilitation one day at a time and trying to live a life in service to others. They discussed how their recovery allowed them to see their shared humanity with corrections officers, whom they could not have imagined having a relationship with when they went to prison.
Juan Maldonado, whose sentence was shortened by 13 years and 10 months, said his program of recovery has helped him understand that it is OK to disagree with someone, that he doesn’t have to live a life of rage and resentment because another person holds a different opinion than him. He said that his recovery has given him priceless gifts that he wants to pass on to others dealing with the same issues.
“What I’ve been doing is try to better myself, and to help those that are in the same or similar circumstance,” said Maldonado, who was 25 when he was sentenced to 55 years for felony murder.
Family members of the deceased victims were given an opportunity to speak during each applicant’s hearing. Many expressed disappointment that their loved one’s killer might be released because it represented a sort of broken promise that they’d been given at their sentencing hearing decades prior. Others talked about the sleepless nights, grief’s unending, borderless pain, and how hard it is to look at their grandchildren because it reminds them of the person they lost.
“I forgave him on that day he took my son’s life, but I still want him to pay for what he did to my son,” a woman identified as Ms. Johnson, the mother of Chauncey Robinson, whom Carrasquillo killed in 2003, told the board. “Eighteen-and-a-half years is not enough time for me.”
Many asked why the incarcerated person should be allowed to spend time with their family after robbing their victim of time with their loved ones.
“My son is left without a father,” said an unnamed woman who had a child with Edgar Sanchez, who was murdered by Victor Smalls in 2007. “I agree everyone deserves a second chance. But my son doesn’t get a second chance to see his father.”
The board shaved 20 years off Smalls’ 45-year sentence, making him eligible for a parole hearing in a year.
Not all of the victims’ relatives opposed commutation. The wife of Gregory Boykins said she forgave her husband’s killer, Benito Lugo, a long time ago, though it pains her Boykins will never hug his children or grandchildren. She said she respects that Lugo has mentored young people in prison for the past two and a half decades because she believes people commit crimes when they don’t have guidance and support.
Lugo, who was 19 when he was first incarcerated in 1995, is serving a 40-year sentence for felony murder. He received a 12-year commutation.
“As much as I want to say I want you to stay in for the 40 years, if you truly feel that you can help, and this board feels that what is offered would better these young adults who are on the wrong path,” she said, pausing to catch her breath, “I would have to say a second chance is deserving.”
The other men whose sentences were commuted are:
- Peter Gonda, who is serving a 40-year sentence for felony murder. He was 24 at the time of his crime. He has been imprisoned since 1996. He received a commutation of 12 years and nine months so he could be screened for community supervision.
- Demetrius Miller, who is serving a 40-year sentence for felony murder. He was 21 years old at the time of his crime. He is now 48. The board reduced his sentence by a decade. He will eligible for release to community supervision in 2024.
- Willie Myers, who was 21 years old when he committed felony murder. He is now age 48, 26 years into his 30-year sentence. The board shortened his sentence by one year, five months and 30 days.
- Carlos Rebollo, who was 15 years old when he committed first-degree arson and attempted murder. He has been in prison since 1998. His sentence was shortened by five years. He will be eligible next year for a juvenile parole hearing, which would allow him to be released from prison and put on community supervision until 2036.