Audrey Carlson, center, whose daughter was murdered, watches the confirmation debate. She was opposed to Carleton Giles serving another term. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

Carleton J. Giles, who oversaw an exponential increase in sentence commutations last year as chair of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, was confirmed as a rank-and-file member Thursday by a divided House of Representatives.

Gov. Ned Lamont removed Giles as chair two weeks ago and ordered a review of commutations policies but did not withdraw Giles’ nomination for another term.

The House vote was 79-67, with every Republican and 15 Democrats opposed.

The Senate confirmed him on April 12 on a 21-14 vote.

Lawmakers are preparing legislation aimed at providing more transparency and clarity to how board policies are adopted but not necessarily curtailing the board’s discretion to review sentences of inmates after 10 years in prison.

“We’re looking more at processes,” said Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, co-chair of the Judiciary Committee.

On and off the House floor, Stafstrom defended Giles, a pastor in Milford who was a police officer in Norwalk for 30 years before becoming chair of the Board of Pardons and Paroles a decade ago. Giles, he said, clearly acted within the powers granted by the General Assembly.

“I think, unfortunately, Mr. Giles is being criticized for doing his job,” Stafstrom told reporters. “We set forth very clearly in statute that the Board of Pardons and Paroles has the ability to commute sentences. And we also vest power under current law in the chairman of the board to set policy for this. He has done that.”

During the House debate, Stafstrom said he and his co-chair, Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, had urged Giles to be more aggressive in commutations for medical reasons during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Giles resisted, insisting the law did not allow it. It was a principled disagreement, Stafstrom said.

“I’m here to say that in my experience with Mr. Giles, he has called it down the middle as chair. He is not some runaway liberal activist,” Stafstrom said. “In fact, there are times when I and I think others have thought he is not going far enough with the statutory authority he has.”

But Republicans held Giles responsible for a dramatic increase in commutations, complaining he failed to articulate the rationale for the change or consult with other board members, lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee or members of the governor’s office.

After not commuting more than three sentences in any recent year, the board commuted 71 last year, including 44 for inmates serving time for murder — many of those for men convicted of taking a life decades ago, in their early 20s or as a teen. Giles has not explained the sudden increase.

The commutations were approved by a panel of three board members: Giles and two others he chose.

Rep. Craig Fishbein of Wallingford, the ranking House Republican on Judiciary, objected to the notion that the board chair has the unilateral authority to either stop considering applications for commutations or to change the criteria for granting them.

“You mean to tell me that this ability to turn on, turn off the process is vested in one individual who is more powerful than the governor, is not elected by anyone?” Fishbein said. “I offer that that argument just doesn’t make sense. And if that was the intent, it has to be changed.”

Watching in the House gallery was Audrey Carlson of Newington, whose 24-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, was shot to death by an ex-boyfriend, Jonathan Carney, in 2002. 

Carney, who pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 42 years, sought a commutation, an application that was rejected in pre-screening without a hearing. A minority of applicants are cleared for a hearing.

But under the law, the Carlson family was notified of the application. They immediately began organizing opposition to the board’s new policy and, more recently, the confirmation of Giles.

Stafstrom said many of those notifications were premature, causing unnecessary upset to families of victims.

Rep. Steve Weir, R-Hebron, said his wife, whose mother was murdered, has twice received such notifications.

“This has really caused her a fair amount of concern to get these letters,” Weir said. Of the convicted killer, he said, “He’s still behind bars, and we’re going on with our lives.”

Other lawmakers made clear they have deeper objections to commutations of sentences for murder other than the notifications. Giles, they said, was wrong on the substance, not the process.

“He had the authority to do it. He did it. And it was wrong,” said Rep. Greg Howard, R-Stonington, a police officer. “It was wrong to those families. It was wrong to those victims. It was wrong for the state of Connecticut.”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.