Commutation is mercy –an opportunity for someone condemned to many years in prison to plead for mercy. There is no guarantee they will get it. Commutation is just the opportunity for them to ask.
On Wednesday, May 24, the House of Representatives said no mercy, no matter what, for hundreds of people in Connecticut. The House passed an amendment to HB 6738 that would block commutation for anyone with a 60-year sentence or greater. In Connecticut, there are currently 368 such individuals. Many of them were born in Connecticut, grew up here, and their families continue to live in Connecticut. But last Wednesday, the House said no mercy for them, no matter what.
The proposed bill would create the harshest commutation policy in our state’s history. Since 1882, the legislature has made commutation available to any person convicted of any offense. This included death sentences, until Connecticut abolished the death penalty. Yet, now, in 2023, the House of Representatives—a Democratic supermajority that campaigned on criminal justice reform—is offering Connecticut the most draconian commutation scheme in its history.
And what’s more, the House passed the bill on a voice vote. Speaker of the House Matt Ritter deemed it “technical.” That’s a gut punch, especially because one effect of the bill would be to ensure that almost 100 people die in prison, and that many more spend much longer behind bars. Remember, these are real people. Brothers, kids, parents, sisters, friends. People with dreams and goals and histories and futures. People who woke up this morning, have plans for the day, and will try to get a good night of sleep tonight. The House, on Representative Steve Stafstrom’s recommendation, condemned them to die in prison. With a voice vote. Deemed “technical.”
Most profoundly, the bill says that hundreds of Connecticut residents can’t even ask for mercy. What does that say about Connecticut? A Democratically controlled so-called second chance state that says no mercy for those who need it most. And all this just a decade after the state admirably abolished the death penalty. As former Department of Correction Commissioner Scott Semple told an audience in 2017, “a system without hope is a system in chaos.”
Now the bill the goes to the Senate. Will they, too, throw hundreds of Connecticut residents under the bus and tell them to die in prison? If they do, will they explain how they will pay for it? How they will pay for the costly time in prison, for the medical expenses of the elderly? Will they offer some justification for keeping grandparents, who can’t walk, in cages until the day they die? Will they explain why they are deciding that hundreds of Connecticut residents, many of whom who were failed by state institutions, will get no mercy, no matter what?
Will they be willing to meet these individuals in prison? Explain why they must be required to die in prison? Will they sit with their family members —who live lives in Connecticut and will carry the grief of knowing their loved ones will never be with them again? Or will the Senate, too, deem the bill technical and pass it with a voice vote?
The legislative session ends June 7; our Senators should resist the morally bankrupt HB 6738 amendment. At the very least, they should hit pause until they have time to carefully consider its implications. Being condemned to die in a cage is not technical and removing hope from hundreds is not technical. The HB 6738 amendment should never be passed, but if it is, it should not be passed in haste. The House made that mistake, the Senate must not.
Daniel Loehr is a clinical lecturer in law at Yale Law School.