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Connecticut GOP Lawmakers Force Governor to Replace Pardon Board Chair, Stopping All Commutation Hearings

by Jordan Arizmendi

A spate of Connecticut commutations in 2022 didn’t come close to resolving the backlog in applications, only one of which had been granted in two years. But it piqued the ire of reactionary GOP lawmakers, like state Sen. John Kissel, who loudly called on Gov. Ned Lamont (D) to “stop this right now.” On April 10, 2023, Lamont caved to that demand, replacing Board of Pardons and Paroles (BOPP) Chairman Carleton Giles.

By then, Kissel and fellow Republican lawmakers had staged a bizarre press conference in March 2023, littering a stage with cut-up mugshots of prisoners who had received clemency. Where the face should be, however, text spelled out the crimes for which each had been convicted, the length of his sentence and how many years had been subtracted from it.

Connecticut is one of just six states that vests clemency authority in an independent body. As the new chair of BOPP, Jennifer Medina Zaccagnini also chooses which board members hear commutations, a power Kissel and his fellow Republicans accused Giles of abusing – even though Giles is a former cop. Within days of her appointment, Zaccagnini announced an indefinite hold on all future clemency actions in the state.

The state is an especially lousy place to serve life. Prison sentences were drastically elongated in the late 1980s. Many young adults busted during the crack crime wave of that era got massively long sentences. Though BOPP has historically granted clemency at a snail’s pace, the pace ground to a halt in 2020, when it granted zero commutations. Just one followed in 2021. In fact, BOPP made it more difficult to get a commutation by forcing prisoners to wait two years before applying.

After BOPP, under Giles, resumed taking applications for clemency in 2021, the review process was altered to include prisoners who were sentenced to long terms when they were just kids or young adults. Of the 700 people serving life sentences in the state, the Sentencing Project determined that most will die in prison without clemency. Over half of them are Black, compared to just 13% of the state’s population as a whole. The math means that clemency overwhelmingly benefits Black prisoners, who received nearly two-thirds of the 71 commutations handed out in 2022.

“Stopping the commutations is a racist policy,” declared attorney Alex Taubes, whose clients include prisoners appearing before BOPP.

But included in the 2022 commutations were 44 prisoners convicted of murder. GOP lawmakers seized on the fact, shrewdly pointing their fire at Giles to force Lamont to defenestrate him. Giles remains on BOPP, but without the authority of the Chair.

“Even though this governor is very lackadaisical when it comes to criminal justice abolition and reform, we need to push him to do the right thing, and we need him to push [BOPP] to do the right thing,” insisted Tiheba Bain, co-founder of Women Against Mass Incarceration, a Bridgeport nonprofit whose “vision is a world where the current criminal (in)justice system is obsolete.”

Additional sources: Bolts Magazine, US News, WBUR