In step with recent changes made to Connecticut’s Board of Pardons and Paroles, state lawmakers in the House of Representatives voted on Wednesday night to grant themselves more authority in appointing the individual who chairs the body.
The legislation, House Bill 6738, passed on a 102-45 vote, with four members absent.
Under current law, the governor has authority to select a chairperson from the Board of Pardons and Paroles without input from the legislature. If passed, H.B. 6738 would require that the governor receive “advice and consent” from the House and Senate before designating the board’s leader. If the position was vacated with lawmakers out of session, the longest-serving board member would assume the top role until the legislature reconvened.
The bill would also make clarifying changes to compassionate parole release and medical parole release, which would address concerns brought forth at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic about the board’s minimal activity while people behind bars remained at serious risk of contracting and dying from the virus.
Currently, compassionate release can be extended to incarcerated people who have served half their sentence and are physically or mentally debilitated to the point where they’re physically incapable of presenting a danger to society. Medical parole requires that the individual have a terminal illness, and it doesn’t have a time-served requirement.
The new bill seeks to allow for a panel under the Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant compassionate release during a major disaster or an emergency declaration by the President of the United States covering any part of the state, or an emergency declaration issued by the governor — unless a person was convicted of capital felony, murder with special circumstances or has persistently committed serious crimes.
If the incarcerated person met the eligibility requirements, the panel would have the power to grant their release if it found that circumstances exist, such as COVID-19, which pose a higher risk of harm to a person than if the individual remained behind bars, or if the person presented a “reduced risk” of presenting a danger to society.
“I believe the Board of Pardons and Paroles already had this authority,” said Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport and co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, on Wednesday. “But we are making it clear in this statute and hopefully next time there is a global pandemic or another emergency declaration … this process could be utilized more quickly and hopefully save more lives.”
The bill would also require the Department of Correction to award “public health emergency release credits” during any emergency declaration to certain people whose scheduled release date is within a year of the declaration. The credits would count toward reducing the person’s incarceration by 122 days for each month they’re imprisoned during the public emergency.
Some Republicans voiced opposition to the changes, with a passionate rebuke coming from Tammy Nuccio, R-Tolland.
“As somebody who personally has justice-impacted family, and what has happened in the state of Connecticut in the last few years, I just can’t get behind this,” Nuccio said. “I just have a really hard time with looking for reasons to let people out of jail who haven’t finished their sentence. And I have compassion for the victims of these crimes … a promise was made to them for retribution for a crime that was committed.”
According to the bill, a person granted compassionate release during an emergency declaration would return to the Board of Pardons and Paroles once the threat expires, and a determination would be made to revoke, continue or modify their release. The board could revoke the release if there’s no longer a heightened risk of harm to the person behind bars or if returning the individual “is in the best interest of public safety.”
The legislation still garnered support from several of Nuccio’s colleagues, notably on sections of the bill that would grant lawmakers more involvement in selecting the board’s chairperson, require the board to submit data to the legislature annually on people granted compassionate release, and limit when crime victims receive notifications pertaining to an incarcerated person seeking a commutation.
“We restore the constitutional powers that I believe we should have had all along,” said Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford and the top House Republican on the Judiciary Committee. “I’m very happy with the legislation that’s before us here today, and I look forward to the Board of Pardons and Paroles, because to their credit, since this dustup has happened over the last few months, they have suspended commutations to wait for us to get this done.”
The “dustup” Fishbein referenced was a Republican concern over an increase in commutations, or the shortening of a sentence, by the board.
Following a two-year hiatus, 71 commutations were granted in 2022, 16% of requests, compared to a half-dozen in the previous six years combined, according to data from the board. Black residents made up 45 of the commuted sentences. Forty-four went to people serving time for murder who had already served a bulk of their sentences.
Republicans said the spike in commutations was a drastic change that should have gone before the legislature. However, the statute governing the board granted it broad authority over the commutations process. And a 1981 U.S. Supreme Court ruling held that the board had “unfettered discretion” to commute sentences and shorten the length of time someone spends behind bars.
In response to the uproar, Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, opted to remove Carleton Giles, who spent 33 years as a Norwalk police officer before joining the board, as chair. His decision to remove Giles, who is Black, after the clamor from Republican lawmakers and some victims of crime, who were mostly white, in a state that disproportionately imprisons Black people, has raised questions among academics and advocates about Connecticut’s status as a leader in criminal justice reform.
Community organizers held a day of appreciation for Giles earlier this month. Commutations remain suspended, and it is unclear if the bill, if fully passed, would resume them.
On Wednesday, House lawmakers also advanced House Bill 6875, which aims to close loopholes in a 2017 law that sought to provide identification cards or driver’s licenses to incarcerated people prior to their release from prison. The bill garnered unanimous support.
Both bills now move to the Senate.