May 6, 2011
BOARD OF PARDONS AND PAROLES AND COMMUTATIONS
By: Christopher Reinhart, Chief Attorney
You asked a number of questions about the Board of Pardons and Paroles and its pardon and commutation powers. We answer these questions separately below.
What is the composition of the Board of Pardons and Paroles? What are the qualifications to be a member? Who serves on a pardons panel?
The Board of Pardons and Paroles consists of 20 members appointed by the governor with the General Assembly's approval. Twelve members are appointed to serve exclusively on parole panels, seven to serve exclusively on pardon panels, and the chair can serve on both.
The law requires members to be qualified by education, experience, or training in the administration of community corrections, parole, pardons, criminal justice, criminology, evaluating or supervising offenders, or providing mental health services to offenders.
The chair and five parole members serve full-time and are paid salaries. The remaining members serve part-time and receive a $110 per diem and necessary expenses.
Each pardons panel consists of three members, chosen by the chair from among those appointed to serve on pardons panels. The chair may be a member of a panel and must be on a panel considering commuting a death sentence. By law, people convicted of certain misdemeanor or drug crimes may receive an administrative pardon without a hearing unless a victim requests one. The chair, with the board's executive director, adopted regulations for this process as authorized by statute (CGS § 54-124).
Does the law specify eligibility requirements and criteria for granting pardons? Does the board impose any?
The law gives the board authority to grant conditioned or absolute (1) commutations of punishment or releases for a person convicted of any offense against the state, including commuting a death sentence and (2) pardons for any offense against the state at any time after the sentence is imposed. The board can also grant provisional pardons to relieve an offender of a particular barrier to employment (CGS §§ 54-124 and -130a).
The law gives the board independent decision-making authority. The only eligibility restriction or criteria set in statute states that the board may accept pardon applications three years after conviction of a misdemeanor or violation and five years after a felony conviction, but it can accept an application earlier for extraordinary circumstances (CGS § 54-130a). The law also requires the board to issue a written statement of reasons for rejecting a pardon application but does not impose any additional requirements.
The law authorizes the board's chair to:
1. establish procedural rules for hearings, reviewing recommendations from board employees, and decisions and
2. adopt policies for, among other things, granting pardons, commuting punishments or releases, and commuting death sentences (CGS § 54-124).
The board's application forms set additional requirements and criteria. The forms reiterate the statutory timeframe for applying for a pardon but also allow an offender currently serving a sentence to apply after serving (1) four years of a minimum 8-year sentence and (2) half of a sentence of less than eight years. The board can waive this requirement for compelling reasons.
The board's application materials for offenders still serving a sentence state that clemency will be considered only for “the most compelling circumstances of miscarriage of justice…and only after exhaustion of all judicial remedies.” The forms state that the focus is on the offender's conduct after conviction, specific reasons why clemency is appropriate, and evidence of specific extraordinary circumstances or specific exemplary conduct. The materials for someone no longer serving a sentence require submitting criminal history records and three references and allow the applicant to submit other documents.
Copies of all of the application documents are available at: http://www.ct.gov/doc/cwp/view.asp?a=1520&q=464968.
Does the governor have any pardon power?
The Connecticut Constitution does not grant the governor power to grant pardons. It does grant the governor limited power “to grant reprieves after conviction, in all cases except those of impeachment, until the end of the next session of the General Assembly, and no longer” (Article IV, § 13). For more information on the history of pardons in Connecticut, see OLR Report 2004-R-0930.
Can the board commute a death sentence or sentence to life imprisonment without possibility of release?
The board has broad authority to grant conditioned or absolute commutations and pardons (CGS §§ 54-124 and -130a). The law explicitly gives the board authority to commute a death sentence. It also gives the board authority to grant commutations and pardons for any offense against the state. Thus, the board's authority applies to capital felonies, the only crime that currently carries the penalty of life imprisonment without possibility of release.
A bill this session (sSB 1035) would abolish the death penalty as a sentencing option. Would offenders sentenced to life without possibility of release have any options to seek release?
sSB 1035 (1) eliminates the death penalty as a sentencing option for a capital felony committed on or after the bill's passage, thus leaving life imprisonment without the possibility of release as the penalty and (2) renames the crime of capital felony as murder with special circumstances. Thus, murder with special circumstances is punishable only by life imprisonment without the possibility of release.
Under the bill and current law, life without possibility of release means a sentence of imprisonment for the remainder of the defendant's natural life (CGS § 53a-35b). The bill explicitly bars people convicted of murder with special circumstances, as for people convicted of capital felonies under current law, from parole (CGS § 54-125a), medical parole (CGS § 54-131b), and compassionate parole (CGS § 54-131k).
Two release programs give the Department of Correction (DOC) commissioner authority to release inmates without restrictions based on the inmates' convictions.
1. The DOC commissioner or his designee has discretion to arrange to continue the employment of an inmate who is self-employed or has been regularly employed. The commissioner, his designee, or another suitable person or agency can attempt to secure suitable employment for someone or provide for the inmate's attendance at an educational institution if the inmate would profit from it. An inmate must be confined in prison when not at his or her job or educational institution. To carry out these purposes, the commissioner can transfer an inmate between prisons or to a halfway house, group home, mental health facility, or after satisfactory participation in a residential program, an approved community or private residence (CGS § 18-100).
2. The DOC commissioner can extend the limits of the place of confinement of an inmate, when there is a reasonable belief the inmate will honor the trust, by allowing the inmate to visit a specifically designated place, in or outside the state, under specified conditions for up to 45 days for the following purposes: (a) to visit a dying relative, (b) to attend a relative's funeral, (c) to obtain medical services not otherwise available, (d) to contact prospective employers, or (e) for any compelling reason consistent with rehabilitation. The commissioner can renew these furloughs (CGS § 18-101a).
These provisions are not changed by the bill. It is unclear under the law, and under the bill, whether someone sentenced to life without possibility of release, defined as a sentence of imprisonment for the remainder of the defendant's natural life, would qualify for release under these furlough and work- and education-release programs.
The bill also does not restrict the power of the Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant commutations or pardons. Thus, the board could commute a sentence entirely to immediately release an offender. It could also reduce a sentence to a specified number of years. If it did so, the board could presumably impose conditions or restrictions on a person's eligibility for release under parole or other programs or choose not to do so.