A recent change to policies in the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles (BOPP) which resulted in a sharp increase in the number of inmates receiving commuted sentences over the last two years — including 44 people who had been imprisoned on murder charges — caused a lengthy debate in the Senate on Wednesday.
At issue was the reappointment of Carleton Giles to that board. Giles served as the chairman of the board until Monday, when Gov. Ned Lamont announced he would be replaced by social worker and fellow BOPP board member Jennifer Medina Zaccagnini, following an outcry over the commutations.
Several Republican senators argued against Giles’ reappointment to the board, each making their own case as to why they disagreed with his decisions.
Sen. John Kissel (R-Enfield) was the first to take the mic during the debate. For Kissel, the argument came down to how the board’s rules changed. He called the increase in commutations a “sea change policy” and said that it was enacted by Giles single-handedly.
Kissel argued these changes should have been brought to the General Assembly, or at least to the Committee on the Judiciary.
“I firmly believe that that is our realm,” he stated. “We’re the lawmakers. We’re the ones that make these decisions.”
Later he added that the criminal justice system “needs to have the community’s support in order to function. We don’t live in a dictatorship. We don’t have an ultimate ruler that’s going to say you must to XYZ. We have a free society, an open democracy, the rule of law. We are the Constitution State here in Connecticut.”
Others, including Sen. Heather Somers (R-Groton), spoke on behalf of victims and their families, some of whom joined Sen. Somers for a press conference ahead of Wednesday’s senate session.
Sen. Somers said those families had been “revictimized” by the policy change and subsequent commutations.
“I think today in this circle we have a very serious decision to make. Does the Board of Pardon and Paroles and the chairman fit the mission that the state of Connecticut wants to proceed with? Are we a body that wants to stand with victims and their families, or are we a body that thinks it’s okay to have sentences overturned by a layperson’s board? These are people that are changing the decisions of sentencing judges, of juries, of plea deals.”
Not everyone in the chamber was opposed to Giles’ reappointment. Several Democrats rose to his defense, citing his character and history both on the board and as a police officer.
In his arguments, Sen. Herron Gaston (D-Bridgeport) said he believed that the policy change was a good-faith decision that was not made unilaterally. If there was an issue with the process by which the board changes its rules, he said, then it should have been addressed beforehand and is something the General Assembly could take up in the future.
He also made arguments in favor of what he called “compassionate justice.”
“I, myself, over the past couple of weeks, lost a loved one in the state of New York, who was actually killed at the hands of a person who was released from prison,” he said. “On the one side of me, I believe in accountability. On the other side of me, I certainly believe in compassionate justice, and I certainly believe in forgiveness.”
Ultimately, the Senate voted to confirm Giles’ reappointment, but the vote was more split than votes earlier and later in the day confirming other members of the Board of Pardons and Paroles. Twenty-one senators voted in favor, while 14 voted against. One member was absent and did not cast a vote.