Carleton Giles, wearing a gray suit and a tie with purple and orange stripes, stands next to Attorney General William Tong, who's seen talking in front of microphones.
Attorney General William Tong, right, and Carleton J. Giles, the chair of the pardons board, in a 2019 file photo. Mark Pazniokas / CT Mirror

Last month, Board of Pardons and Parole Chairman Carleton J. Giles was stripped of his position by Gov. Ned Lamont in what some see as the result of political pressure from Republicans and the outcry of victims’ families over the dramatic reduction in sentences.

As I heard the news, I flashed back to serving time at York Correctional Institution watching the news coverage of the Cheshire home invasion and listening to the whispers of former parolees who had been pulled back into custody as a knee-jerk public safety reaction by officials. The two men who committed the heinous acts against the Pettit family had been on parole at the time of the crime. 

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In response, then-Gov. Jodi Rell initiated an aggressive criminal justice reform campaign that included halting parole for violent offenders and re-evaluation for those on community release until reform measures were put in place. These types of knee-jerk decisions are based on fear and they impact everyone. If our time served is not going to be enough, what is?

Giles has been taken to task for being a rogue operator of social justice reform by some legislators, calling his release of more than 70 individuals a case of following his own criminal justice policy agenda. The current increase of commutations by the Board of Pardons and Parole is the result of the past criminal justice reform in the state over the last decade initiated by then-Gov. Dannel Malloy’s Second Chance Society Initiative. Ironically the Parole Board was chided for not being progressive enough with their reform and was advised to “overhaul” the commutation process. Governor Lamont during the COVID-19 pandemic believed in the expertise and experience of the Board of Pardons and Paroles to make discretionary decisions.

Why the political backpedal?  Is it possible that although the governor spoke of criminal justice reform in his campaign for office, he has failed to follow through actively? Or can it be that Lamont is bowing to political pressure from Republicans and victims’ families?

Marisol Garcia

For the past decade, Connecticut has touted itself as a cutting-edge restorative justice state with compassionate but fair criminal justice policies and procedures. The creation and implementation of the 18-25 T.R.U.E and W.O.R.T.H. units in partnership with the Vera Institute of Justice Restoring Promise Initiative began with Malloy after a trip to Germany began this process. However, as with most initiatives, it has fallen by the wayside. Connecticut seems to swing its criminal justice pendulum from punitive to rehabilitative creating a cycle that only causes confusion, pain, and trauma to everyone.

After meeting with victims’ families, legislators, and the governor, State Sen. Heather Somers called for a process that is both open and transparent, where every victim, lawmaker, prosecutor, and defense attorney has input on how this commutations policy should be revised. She and several victims’ families touched on the trauma they re-live upon receiving the victim notification every three years. They also experience an inability to understand how the person who was sentenced to a lengthy sentence under a plea agreement, which they believed to be an ironclad contract, could be eligible for commutation. These concerns point to a broken criminal justice system in Connecticut.

During my incarceration at York Correctional Institute, I learned to take accountability for my actions. But, the blade of justice cuts both ways. I deeply empathize with the victims’ families of having to relive the trauma of their loved ones, and I also understand that the person sentenced for the crime lives with guilt and shame every day.

Reliving the crime and psycho-social repercussions is also traumatic for them and their families who, in their own way, are sentenced with them. Crimes and their aftermath don’t leave anyone untouched. Although I agree with Sen. Somers on the need for transparency and an open process with input from everyone, she left out one important voice: that of the communities most impacted by criminal justice issues.

The criminal justice system in Connecticut is broken. Rather than using Carleton J. Giles as a scapegoat, Governor Lamont should make an executive order for transparency and openness from all levels of the criminal justice system: the bench, prosecutors, public defenders, and corrections. The severe sentences handed down during the “War on Crime” era have impacted and clogged the drain of the Connecticut carceral system long enough. It is time for a change in the judiciary nomination of non-prosecutorial candidates, reigning in prosecutorial autonomy, and public defenders “one size fits all mentality.”

I am calling for Governor Lamont and the legislature to put your money where your mouth is, but also remember that justice-impacted communities are constituents as well. If our time served is not going to be enough, then it’s time to tell us what is.

Rather than spotlight the Board of Pardons and Parole as the only agency in need of scrutiny, the same should be done for the entire judiciary system: judges, prosecutors, and public defenders. Connecticut’s criminal justice system is broken and needs to be overhauled.

Marisol Garcia is a Member of the Connecticut Mirror Community Editorial Board.