At what point does it make sense for the state to grant mercy to people incarcerated for serious crimes? It’s an age-old question that people on both sides of the issue have debated for decades. In Connecticut, officials are leaning into the commutation of longer prison sentences for a variety of reasons.
Most state governments are typically loathe to release prisoners – especially those convicted of violent crimes. Still, this remains an important facet of the overall discussion on criminal justice reform, and there appears to be a growing number of people who are in favor of re-evaluating how the nation makes decisions related to incarceration.
Connecticut Commutes Long Sentences
CT Insider published a report noting how the state has been commuting lengthy prison sentences “at a historic rate,” though it also pointed out that this “might not last much longer.” The report begins by detailing the story of Mack Young, who had served 27 years of a 55-year sentence. Young was released in July after the Board of Pardons and Paroles commuted his sentence. The reporter writes:
“Young was 32 when he stabbed and killed an acquaintance amid a fight over a debt, landing himself in prison for what he expected would be the rest of his life. But over his decades locked up, he had received a GED and a paralegal certification and become a respected mentor to younger prisoners, including as part of a program featured on ‘60 Minutes.’”
Young sent in an application after finding out that the board was granting commutations for people in his position. “I just dropped my head, man, and thanked God for the opportunity,” he told CT Insider. “You don’t get that many shots.”
The former inmate was one of almost 100 people to see lengthy prison sentences in Connecticut commuted – most of whom were convicted of serious offenses, like murder. But as common as this has recently become, it isn’t expected to last. Richard Sparaco, executive director of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, said that due to the high number of inmates who have applied for commutation, there probably will not be many more who qualify for consideration.
“To be eligible for commutation in Connecticut, someone must have served at least a decade in prison and be more than two years away from a chance at parole,” the report expalins. “If denied commutation, the person must wait at least three years and then reapply only if ‘new information’ emerges.”
“We’ve cycled through a lot of people who have been eligible for commutation,” Sparaco elaborated. “And once all these individuals have applied, it’s very rare that we’re going to hear their cases again.”
The Debate Over Commutation
Not surprisingly, the commutations have elicited both support and criticism. Republican lawmakers at a press conference joined families of the victims of violent crimes to demand that the state stop freeing offenders. However, Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont suggested that people “step back and see how the policy is working.”
“The seriousness of the topic demands a careful approach involving the General Assembly as well as stakeholders, especially victims,” the governor argued in a written statement.
Young also insisted there are likely other people serving lengthy sentences who might be deserving of clemency. “Don’t hold our past against us, give us a chance to show that we’re different,” he said. “Give us a chance to prove who we are now. Not back then, but who we are now.”
When the state began taking applications for commutation in the second half of 2021, 49 people applied. In 2022, this number leaped to 431. So far, 97 of these individuals have been granted clemency.
Family members of victims have vociferously opposed the commutations, insisting that those convicted should serve out their full sentences even if they demonstrate that they have changed. John Aberg was furious over the prospect that the man who killed his three-year-old grandson 16 years ago might be eligible for clemency. “This is a sentence he should not outlive,” Aberg said.
However, in other cases, supporters of clemency argue that these individuals are serving overly-long sentences and many have shown they have been rehabilitated. Alex Taubes, an attorney representing 42 individuals who have received commutations since 2021, pointed out that most conversations on criminal justice reform have not focused on people who have been incarcerated “for an excessive amount of time.”
“There is a large number of people who are incarcerated with serious charges and with long sentences who have nonetheless demonstrated their ability to contribute positively to society,” he said. “Many of them were very young when they committed their crimes and have completely transformed their lives.”
Is Justice Being Done?
As the window closes on this current wave of commutations, it is worth noting that Connecticut is not the only state wrestling with the debate over clemency. In December, advocates for tens of thousands of people imprisoned in North Carolina demonstrated outside the governor’s mansion in downtown Raleigh to demand that he become more willing to use his power to grant clemency.
“The clemency power is a constitutional power that is vast,” said Daniel Bowes, the director of policy and advocacy at the ACLU of North Carolina. “Gov. Cooper has it within his individual ability to release people from prison, and if he wanted to truly enact a more fair criminal justice system, and clearly one that doesn’t incarcerate the highest rate of people in the world, then he could actually achieve that.”
Discussions centering on criminal justice reform are already difficult – fraught with emotion and no small amount of politicking. But from a liberty perspective, it is a conversation worth having as more questions are being raised about the fairness of America’s approach to crime and punishment. Clemency is but one factor in this equation that the nation will have to solve to create a better system for all.
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