State of Connecticut suspends commutation, YLS community responds
Commutation – the process through which incarcerated individuals apply to have sentences reconsidered – was indefinitely suspended by the Connecticut Board of Pardons and Paroles.
Tim Tai, Photography Editor
Earlier this month, the Connecticut Board of Pardons and Paroles indefinitely suspended commutation, the process through which incarcerated individuals apply to have their sentences reconsidered. Connecticut is currently the only state to have no commutation process in place.
The decision to suspend commutation came in response to a movement of people claiming to represent the interests of families of victims affected by crime. Community members at the Yale Law School have been pushing Connecticut higher-ups to reinstate the process since its suspension.
“We’re hoping that the governor and the new board chair will understand how important and serious this is, and that they’re going to do the right thing,” said YLS professor Miriam Gohara. “So we’re hoping the conversation will end and we won’t continue to have any disagreement about this.”
Gohara explained to the News that she had become aware of the change in commutation policy because of her work with the Challenging Mass Incarceration Clinic, where she and law school students were working in teams representing incarcerated individuals in their application for commutation. Though the commutation process had been temporarily suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was then reinstated in 2021.
Gohara said she had already been put on alert to the political pressures the Board of Pardons and Paroles was facing when in August, the Board announced a narrowing of the eligibility criteria for commutation applications: commutation would no longer be available to individuals sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
“Over the course of the fall and earlier this year, we became aware that the board’s work on commutation generally … was under attack,” Gohara said. “Not by many people, but by some vocal people who staged a press conference where some crime victims expressed their disapproval of the Board’s considering applications for commutation.”
The press conference in question took place on March 6, and featured, among others, Audrey Carlson, mother of Elizabeth Carlson, who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in 2002.
One criticism highlighted was the role that commutation allegedly plays in undermining the terms stipulated in plea bargains. Speakers said that these plea bargains themselves often involve families compromising on sentencing length to avoid the emotional burden of sitting through long trials.
“Imagine the unimaginable for just a second: your world crashes in around you, you’re caught in a riptide, you can’t breathe and just when you think and you feel you might find your way, you learn that your killer might be set free,” Carlson said at the conference.
In an April 12 open letter authored and signed by various YLS faculty, including Gohara, professors expressed concern with the indefinite suspension of commutation, describing the process as a “critical safety valve.”
The letter describes how, even while making sentencing decisions to the best of their ability, judges cannot be absolutely certain that a particular sentence will make sense years or decades later.
“Justices are not clairvoyant,” the letter reads. “They cannot anticipate whether the sentence meted out on sentencing day will continue to serve the purposes of punishment years later.”
The letter goes on to highlight the historical precedent of deferring commutation power to the Board of Pardons and Paroles, which has been reflected in Connecticut’s governing structure since the late 19th century.
Additionally, the authors wrote that commutation works as a counterbalance against crimes that have mandatory minimum sentences, meaning that no matter the position of judge and jury on recommended sentencing, an individual found guilty must serve the amount of time designated as necessary by law.
“Commutation also serves as a mechanism to ensure the fairness and proportionality of criminal sentences,” the letter explains. “Many of the people positioned to seek commutation today were tried and sentenced in the 1990s and early 2000s.”
A key point of the letter is the judiciousness of the commutation process and the checks in place to make sure that commutation is being granted responsibly. From 2021 to 2022, the letter notes, the Board received 328 commutation applications, with only 27 percent of those cases resulting in a successful commutation.
Among the factors taken into account when an incarcerated person applies for commutation is their institutional record, an assessment of rehabilitation, the seriousness and recentness of the conviction, the impact on the victim and the length of the applicant’s sentence. Age at the time of conviction is also a key consideration, with the Board taking care to think about what stage of brain development an applicant was experiencing at the time of the committed crime. From 2021 to 2022, the average age of the commuted individual at the time of offense was 22.6 years old.
“Policies that prevent parole and commutation do not advance public safety,” the letter reads. “This is especially true for older people serving long sentences for crimes they committed when they were young. Evidence suggests that most people who commit crimes—even very serious crimes—age out of criminal behavior as they mature.”
Chisato Kimura LAW ’25 — one of the students involved with Gohara’s clinic — told the News that once the suspension was announced, her team immediately launched into advocacy work, sending out emails to stakeholders and officials in Connecticut about the importance of pushing back against an indefinite suspension.
The clinic also sent out the published open letter as a template — to be used by criminal justice organizers and other stakeholders — addressed to Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, Board of Paroles and Pardons Chairperson Jennifer M. Zaccagnini and State Sen. Gary Winfield, among others.
“I do think that this is part of a larger conversation where people talk about rising crime rates and things like that without the data to back it up,” Kimura said. “And it’s a continuation and perpetuation of the over criminalization of black and brown people, because obviously there is a huge racial component to this. When we look at the rates of incarceration, specifically in Connecticut and obviously nationwide, there is a huge racial disparity.”
In an email from the Board of Pardons and Paroles, several individuals involved in the clinic were informed that the Connecticut commutation policy was currently in the process of being updated and that the Board would resume considering applications within the next few months.
The letter directed individuals to an updated policy listed on the Board’s website, which lists the same information contained in the email: “We are currently in the process of updating the commutation policy.”
“[The email] was really encouraging,” Kimura said. “It shows that they’re hearing us and feeling the pressure, and that we’re being successful in our advocacy. That’s why we really want to continue making sure that people are aware that this is happening, and that there are a lot of advocates pushing back.”
Jennifer Zaccagnini was elected chairperson of the Board of Pardons and Paroles on April 10 2023.