Gov. Ned Lamont announced he was appointing a new chair to the Board of Pardons and Paroles, replacing longtime chairman Carleton Giles with Jennifer Medina Zaccagnini, a social worker who has served on the board since 2008.
The change comes amid outcry by Republicans and victim families over a policy change implemented by Giles which saw a rapid increase in the number of commutations. Over the course of 2021 and 2022 a three-member panel, which included Giles, commuted the sentences of 77 incarcerated individuals, including 44 murder sentences.
Previously, the board had only given out one to three commutations in a given year, and the dramatic change led Republicans to hold a press conference calling for answers and for Lamont to pause commutations until they could better understand what was happening.
Republican members on the Judiciary Committee grilled Giles for hours during a public hearing on his nomination, although he and other nominees were eventually approved by the committee.
Supporters of the policy say the commutations allow convicted offenders, some of whom were incarcerated in their teens, a second chance to reintegrate into society after having already served lengthy sentences.
At least one formerly incarcerated individual, Norman Gaines Jr., who was convicted as a teen for double murder but had his sentence commuted, testified during the Judiciary Committee’s hearing, saying he was obtaining his degree and working as a program coordinator for the Second Change Reentry Initiative Program, helping counsel youth against using violence to solve problems.
Victim families, however, said they were outraged that plea deal and guilty convictions reached in court could be essentially overturned by an unelected panel, further harming the victims’ families.
The issue came to another head when the House of Representatives voted to confirm the nominations of two of the commutation panel members after a lengthy debate, with several Democrats voting with Republicans against the nominations.
Giles will remain on the Board of Pardons and Paroles, provided his nomination is approved by the House and Senate, but will no longer serve as chairman.
Republican leaders, however, said that although they appreciate Lamont taking this step, it does nothing to change to underlying policy they say was implemented by Giles “in the dark of night” without any communication or approval by the legislature.
“I appreciate the governor’s willingness to take this step, but it does not change the fact that this outrageous policy of shaving decades and decades off of Connecticut murderers’ prison sentences continues to this day,” said Senate Republican Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford.
“The change of leadership within the Board of Pardons and Paroles is welcome news but relegating the former chairman to a regular seat on the board doesn’t wash away how or why the egregious spike in sentence commutations occurred,” said House Republican Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford.
Ranking member of the Judiciary Committee Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, said he hopes Zaccagnini’s leadership will mean a reversal of the underlying policy.
“I’m encouraged that the governor appears to be just as concerned with the recently-implemented changes to long-standing Board of Pardons and Paroles practices regarding which violent criminals can have their sentences reduced and when, that he chose to make a leadership change,” Fishbein said. “I look forward to Chairperson Zaccagnini’s tenure, and hopefully a reversal of this drastic change in “policy” implemented without legislative or executive branch approval.”
Lamont thanked Giles for his years of leadership on the board but said Zaccagnini’s experience will “lead the board’s pursuit of less crime and safer communities for Connecticut residents.”
“She is highly respected among criminal justice stakeholders for her dedication to increasing public safety and lowering recidivism, and I thank her for her willingness to step into this leadership position,” Lamont said in a press release.
“I look forward to my continued work with the dedicated staff at the board, as well as collaboration with other state agencies sharing common goals,” Zaccagnini said. “The board plays an essential role in the criminal justice system, and with the help of my exceptional team I will honor my commitment to increasing public safety and lowering recidivism rates. I’m grateful for this opportunity to serve the State of Connecticut.”