Advocates for reducing decadeslong sentences to prison, and the families of homicide victims, are both furiously opposing a bill that would change the process for commuting sentences in Connecticut.
An amended version of the bill, “An Act Concerning Compassionate or Medical Parole and Credits Rewarded for Release During an Emergency Declaration,” codifies into law the a prisoner’s eligibility for a commutation — or a reduced sentence — and the process they must go through to receive that reduction.
But advocates for the families of murder victims say the legislation leaves their voices unheard in the process, while advocates for criminal reform say the measure would leave hundreds of people in the state with no hope of leaving prison. Currently these decisions rest with the three-person Board of Pardons and Paroles appointed by the Governor.
The legislation comes in part in reaction to a wave of commutations in 2022, when the board commuted 71 sentences — a dramatic change from recent years, when the board had never approved more than three. Forty-four of the 71 inmates had been convicted of homicide — a large percentage by people who were 25 years old or younger at the time of the crime.
Gov. Ned Lamont removed Carleton Giles from his role as board chair in April and appointed Jennifer Zaccagnini in his place. The board has since suspended granting commutations.
State Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, and State Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, said during a news conference on Thursday that the amended bill would return to the legislature the power to establish guidelines for commuting prison sentences, rather than delegating it to the Board of Pardons and Paroles.
“The legislation that we passed restores the power of the legislature in the process, and we believe that to be the appropriate policy,” Fishbein said.
But Senate Republicans, who praised Zaccagnini for her policy recommendations and willingness to meet with victims, said the amended bill does not include enough of her recommendations and lacks key provisions protecting the families of victims, including a provision for notification in the case of an application for commutation and for allowing families to attend the hearing without first asking permission.
“If you are the victim of a crime like this, you want to know every single thing that person in prison who took your family member’s life does,” said State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, during a news conference on Thursday.
Jan Kritzman, who spoke for the family of Elizabeth Carlson, who was murdered in 2002, advocated for the essential role of families throughout the process.
“We are the survivors of homicide,” Kritzman said. “We are only the ones who know the details of this horrific crime. We must be allowed to be there, too, throughout the entire process, from beginning to end. We cannot be disregarded.”
Linda Benninkade, who lost a family member in a triple homicide in 2003 in Windsor Locks, challenged Lamont during the news conference, asking whether he “meant it” when he said he would meet with victims’ families and collaborate. She said the amendments that were being passed “took away” the power of due process.
“We as survivors of homicide believe, as many do, that many criminals have the ability to be rehabilitated and be restored back to the community. Not murderers. They intentionally take the life of outstanding citizens,” Benninkade said. “We’re not going to stand here and let this pass again through the back door.”
But Stafstrom said the bill was crafted with provisions to protect the victims of crime. Families would not be notified until a hearing was scheduled, he explained, to avoid needless “revictimization” before an application was screened — a common complaint, according to Fishbein.
“In fact, actually the complaint was [that] victims were receiving notification too early in the process before there was an initial screening to determine whether the individual was even eligible for a commutation, let alone whether they were suitable for that commutation,” Stafstrom said.
Stafstrom said that three-fourths of commutations were denied without a hearing being scheduled.
“What we’re saying is, in those instances where the person is not going to get a commutation, why even notify the victim and put them through that trauma?” he said.
Under the bill, to be eligible a person convicted of a crime must have been sentenced to at least 10 years in prison and have served at least 10 years of that sentence. A person denied a commutation must wait at least five years before applying again — less than Zaccagnini’s recommendation of seven years, but more than the current policy of three years.
Republicans also complained that another of Zaccagnini’s proposals – which would limit eligibility for commutation to people serving at least half of their sentence — was not included in the bill.
The bill also came under fierce criticism from advocates of prison reform for including another of Zaccagnini’s recommendations: People serving life sentences would no longer be eligible for commutation.
Alex Taubes, a civil rights attorney who has represented 43 people who were approved for commutations, referred to the bill as a “Trojan Horse” that he said would not help anyone who is currently incarcerated. He said while the bill’s title purports to expand the opportunities for people to receive compassionate or medical parole, it takes away opportunities for people with life sentences to have their sentences reduced.
“It would … exclude entire categories of people from having any avenue of release,” Taubes told CT Examiner on Tuesday.
Daniel Loehr, a clinical lecturer at Yale Law School, wrote in the Hartford Courant that the amendment would mean 368 current inmates would have no opportunities to have a sentence commuted. He said this bill would create the “harshest commutation policy in our state’s history” since Connecticut made commutations possible in 1882 for any offense.
In an effort to block a vote on the legislation, or at least force further changes, Senate Republicans vowed to run out the clock as the session nears a close.
State Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said at the news conference that Senate Republicans had submitted 41 amendments to the bill and were prepared to discuss them “until the cows come home.”