Amid concerns over a sharp increase in the commutation of prison sentences last year, Gov. Ned Lamont removed Carleton Giles as chair of the Board of Pardons and Paroles on Monday in favor of another board member, Jennifer Medina Zaccagnini.
The move comes as the Senate is scheduled Wednesday to vote on confirming Giles, who spent 33 years as a Norwalk police officer before joining the board, to a third five-year term. While removing him as chair, Lamont did not withdraw his nomination to another term.
Lamont declined to criticize Giles or the other two board members who joined him in commuting 71 sentences in 2022, a departure for a board that commuted no more than three in any other year since 2016. But the governor said he wants to give all stakeholders a chance to review commutation policies.
“Maybe it’s time to take a pause and let the legislature weigh in on what they think the rules of the road ought to be and make sure the advocates on both sides are at the table so we have a full discussion,” Lamont said. “We’ll have that within two weeks.”
With that statement, Lamont effectively sided with Republicans who complained that the board’s commutation policies, which were updated in 2021 and 2022, were not submitted to review by the General Assembly. Under state law, the board was not required to do so.
“If requested to do so by regulation, of course we would do so,” said Richard Sparaco, the executive director of the board.
But the legislature never did, while it has mandated formal regulations in other areas under the board’s purview. In the absence of a regulatory requirement, policies for the commutations were set by Giles as chair, who actually tightened them in 2021 and again in 2022, Sparaco said.
The 2021 revisions extended from eight to 10 years the sentence that must be served before seeking a reduction in sentence by commutation. In 2022, the policy specified that commutation is unavailable to anyone serving “a sentence of life without the possibility of release,” the punishment for what were considered capital offenses prior to the repeal of the death penalty.
Given that the criteria for eligibility actually had tightened, it seemed likely that the increase was due to the judgement of the three board members who weighed the applications for commutations: Giles, Michael E. Pohl and Deborah Smith-Palmieri.
The board has eight full-time members. Giles had the sole authority to select which three would consider applications for sentence commutations.
Even with the dramatic jump in 2022, commutations of sentences remain rare in Connecticut relative to pardons and paroles, the other forms of relief from convictions and sentences that individuals can seek from the board.
Pardons are a way to expunge a criminal record, either absolutely or for purposes of employment. Paroles are a form of early release under continued supervision, not a reduction in sentence.
Commutations most often involve crimes committed by the young. The average age at the time of offense is 22.6, while the average age at a commutation hearing is 46.
Most who applied for commutations in 2021-22 were denied a hearing: 212 of the 310 who applied. About 23% of all applicants were granted a commutation.
The biggest reduction in a sentence 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, presumably a murder. (The board’s statistics page did not specify.) Forty-four inmates doing time for murder were granted commutations that took an average of 14 years off 44-year sentences.
Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, said he believed Giles clearly was acting within statutory authority.
“There seems to be this belief Giles just went off on his own on some sort of liberal criminal justice policy agenda,” Stafstrom said. “Frankly, I don’t believe that’s accurate.”
Stafstrom had complained during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic that the board was granting too few compassionate or medical releases.
The House of Representatives voted over the objections of the Republican minority last week to confirm the two members who joined Giles in reviewing the commutations. The votes were 85-61 for Pohl and 93-53 for Smith-Palmieri.
Zaccagnini, who was first named to the board in 2008 by Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell, and two other board members uninvolved with the commutations were confirmed unanimously and without debate. All nominations to the board are subject to confirmation votes in the House and Senate.
House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, said that the removal of Giles as chair does not address the legislature’s broader questions about whether there is sufficient oversight or adequate criteria for commutations.
Giles had little comment other than saying, “I’m very pleased to be serving the people of Connecticut in whatever place I can.”