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Closing Argument

Connecticut Normalized Clemency. Not Anymore.

After commuting nearly 100 sentences in less than two years, the state is facing a backlash.

An older White man is looking down with his hands on his hips, while leaning against a backdrop that says "The Connecticut HVIP Collaborative." He is dressed in a white button-up shirt with rolled-up sleeves, an orange tie and black pants.
Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont in Hartford on July 27, 2021.

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In the last 16 months, Connecticut experienced something like a clemency renaissance. The state Board of Pardons and Parole commuted nearly 100 sentences, after averaging just one commutation a year from 2016 to 2021.

It now appears the revival will be short-lived. Last month, under pressure from Republican lawmakers and some victims of violent crime, Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont removed the board chairman who presided over the spate of commutations. His replacement promptly halted the commutation process. That has some decarceration advocates concerned that clemency — like recent efforts on bail, pretrial discovery or prosecutorial discretion — may come under attack from political forces seeking a return to the hardline justice policies of the 1990s.

“What worries me is that if this can happen in Connecticut, it can happen anywhere,” said Miriam Gohara, a law professor at Yale University, referring to the state’s liberal politics. Democrats hold the governorship, the state House, and a supermajority in the state Senate.

The state essentially stopped granting commutations in the mid-1990s, as incarceration grew. Some advocates have argued that the recent increase in clemency after the state updated its policies is actually just the clearing of a backlog, and a return to what was a common practice in the state from the 1960s through the 1990s.

One of the crime victims who advocated against the commutations is ​​Kevin McGrath, whose son was killed last year in a stabbing. At a press briefing, he said the finality of a criminal sentence is important “so we can have this part of our lives have closure to it, and we can move on.” The defendant in the case is still awaiting trial and is not eligible for commutation.

A few definitions may be helpful here: Clemency refers to the power of mostly governors — and the president, at the federal level — to give either pardons that reverse criminal convictions, or commutations that shorten sentences. Clemency dates back to the British monarchy, and it has been in the American legal system from its earliest days.

Like most facets of the system, clemency varies wildly from state to state, and between states and the federal government — some have stringent eligibility requirements, and some have none at all. Connecticut is one of six states where an independent board wields sole control over clemency. In most states, the governor alone has that power, or shares it with a state board.

Many of the most well-known acts of clemency have been unpopular, from President Gerald Ford’s preemptive pardon of his predecessor, Richard Nixon, after the Watergate scandal, to President Bill Clinton’s pardon of fugitive billionaire Mark Rich, to President Donald Trump’s fondness for pardoning political allies. In practice, a close relationship with people in power sometimes serves as a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Clemency can also fall along political lines without any pre-existing personal relationship. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted his intention to pardon Army Sgt. Daniel Perry the day after Perry was convicted of murdering a Black Lives Matter protester in 2020. Critics saw the unprecedented announcement as “a blatant attempt to score political points with the far right by a governor contemplating a presidential bid,” according to the Texas Tribune. This week, a judge denied Perry’s request for a new trial.

But there are many acts of clemency that bear little resemblance to these high-profile ones. Instead, clemency often functions as a “safety valve” of last resort for the criminal legal system. At the end of President Barack Obama’s second term, he commuted many more sentences — over 1,700 — than any president in history. It was part of an initiative to right-size excessive sentences and bring them in line with what a person would serve if convicted of the same crime today. In 2017, The Marshall Project caught up with some of those who were released, who described a grateful, but arduous path to employment and rebuilding a life on the outside.

Even at Obama’s historic clip, many clemency advocates argued that his commutation program was timid, and the clemency focused almost exclusively on people serving nonviolent drug offenses. President Joe Biden has used clemency sparingly through his first term, and has focused on people convicted of carrying small amounts of illegal drugs — as with the commutations for seven people last week.

By contrast, in Connecticut, most of the people who have received clemency were convicted of serious crimes, including at least 44 people serving murder sentences. Many were very young when the crime occurred, or convicted under felony murder laws that allow for a person to be held responsible for a killing they did not, themselves, commit. All spent decades in prison before being considered for clemency. A Marshall Project analysis of data compiled by the nonprofit newsroom Connecticut Inside found the median sentence served after commutation was nearly 28 years in prison, down from an original median sentence of 48 years. The median age at the time of the crime was 21, and nearly 20% were minors.

Mack Young was a bit older — 32 — when he stabbed and killed an acquaintance over a debt in 1995. As CT Insider reported, Young served 27 years of a 55-year sentence before his clemency application was approved. While behind bars, Young earned his GED and a paralegal certification, and became a mentor to other men — work he plans to continue on the outside.

“Don't hold our past against us,” Young said to CT Insider, in a plea for commutations to continue. “Give us a chance to prove who we are now. Not back then, but who we are now.”

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Jamiles Lartey Twitter Email is a New Orleans-based staff writer for The Marshall Project. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Guardian covering issues of criminal justice, race and policing. Jamiles was a member of the team behind the award-winning online database “The Counted,” tracking police violence in 2015 and 2016. In 2016, he was named “Michael J. Feeney Emerging Journalist of the Year” by the National Association of Black Journalists.