Face the Facts

Face the Facts: A Look at the State's New Policy for Commuting Prison Sentences

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Sen. Heather Somers (R-Groton) explains why she wants lawmakers to take a hard look at the state’s new policy for commuting sentences.

Mike Hydeck: For nearly 100 Connecticut families, feeling safe recently got a lot more difficult due to a 2021 change in the way prison sentences are commuted. Ninety seven prisoners convicted of violent crimes are back on the streets and now State Republicans say it is time to re-evaluate that policy. Joining me now with how they'd like to see it change is Senator Heather Somers. She is the Republican from Groton, Chief Deputy Senate Republican leader. Senator, welcome to Face the Facts.

Heather Somers: Thank you for having me here today.

Mike Hydeck: So first up, how should the way prison sentences be commuted be changed in your view?

Heather Somers: Well, I think that there's a lot of questions that have to be answered and you know, by the administration in particular. First of all, how did this policy begin in the Board of Pardons and Paroles to allow for so many sentences to be commuted? Before this policy was enacted, we had very few commutations. I believe we had five over five years. And last year alone, as you just noted, there was over 95 individuals who had their sentences commuted. Just last week, there was an individual who was sentenced to 95 years in prison, who had 67 years commuted off their sentence. These are violent criminals. These are not, you know, small crime folks that have been put in jail. These are people that are murderers, rapists, rapists, and murderers. And many of them, which is most troubling, have plea deals. So the families and the victims have agreed to a plea deal where someone is sentenced, let's say for 42 years to go away, not a day longer, not a day less. And they are overriding these contracts, per se, that have been, you know, thoroughly executed by a team of many people over many years or many months. And allowing these individuals to have decades shaved off their sentences without any knowledge. The only reason that we are aware of this is because victim's families have come to us. So this is something, this policy has been developed in the dark. It is something that needs to have light shined upon it so that the citizens of Connecticut understand what is going on here. And we have called for immediate cease and desist of all commutations going forward until there can be a legislative investigation as to what has happened, who gave the call to change the policy. How did three lay people in the State of Connecticut, three people out of this board, get to override the sentencing judges and their, you know, diligent and intentional deliberations that they go through to hand down a sentence.

Mike Hydeck: So is it time then to either expand the number of people on that board? Have oversight of that board? How would you like to see the board changed? I think a lot of people might be shocked to realize that it's only three people.

Heather Somers: While the board right now is a board of 15. It's not totally that there's not you know, there's not 15 people on the board. Currently, there's eight, I believe. Out of those eight, three are the ones who are doing the pre-screening, and three are the ones that are giving the okay to have sentences commuted. Now, this board took it upon themselves to create this policy. So we want an investigation to find out who gave them the authority to go ahead and create this policy, who gave them the nudge to start commutations up, especially at this rate. And again, we have three lay people. These are not prosecutors, these are not defense attorneys, overriding the sentences that judges deliberate over diligently and carefully in the State of Connecticut. And so we would like to see, first of all, as I said, no more commutations, the governor to come out and say we're going to stop this until we can investigate it. I would like to have all stakeholders in the legislature of victims advocates, prosecuting attorneys, defense attorneys at the table to look at what the policy should be. And I certainly believe, as do the victim's families, in many cases, that if there's a plea deal, which is a contract that is signed, and somebody has pled to a charge and agrees to a plea deal, there is no opportunity for commutation. That is a contract that you make during the sentencing part of the trial.

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Mike Hydeck: Speaking of contracts during sentencing, should there be a more direct way of the way sentences are stated and put so people can understand them? Sentencing seems like a sleight of hand. You get 100 years in prison, but you really only have to serve a third of that. And then you get even less off for time that's good behavior. Can that not be clear sentencing, when somebody is sentenced or how much bond somebody has to pay, where you're on a $1.5 million bond, but you only have to pay a small percentage of that and then you can finance that over x amount of number of years. It really seems like a giant shell game where you can't understand how many years somebody has served and how much they have to pay in a bond. Can that be made more clear, do you think?

Heather Somers: I think we can always look for more clarity. You know, Republicans in the legislature here, you know, I'm not on the Judiciary Committee, I'm not on the Public Safety Committee, but I have sat through some really brutal criminal trials of people that have been murdered in my district. And the sentencing that I've been at has been very clear because there's been plea deals. And it has been very clear in certain circumstances that this individual in particular would go away for 40 years, not one day more, not one day less. But yet we have this other board that is undermining, you know, that contract that has been made. And I believe that if you have committed a crime, you've been found guilty by a, you know, a jury of your peers, and there's overwhelming evidence that you are the one that committed this crime, that we should have clear sentences. And I know that this administration, along with the previous one has done everything in their power to give good credit for not acting up in jail, for taking classes, which I can applaud.

Mike Hydeck: I have less than a minute and I have one more question, especially considering the administration now. The governor has publicly said that he agrees that these policies need to be reevaluated. Are you encouraged by that? Do you believe him? Is there a meeting set to make that happen?

Heather Somers: I would be much more encouraged if the governor actually took action and called us together for that particular meeting. You know, words are wind and this is people's lives. These are victims and families. I cannot imagine being someone who lost a daughter or a child to someone who now has an opportunity to get out through a commutation process that the legislature, the governor did not weigh in on. So if he's true to his word, I'd like to see action from the governor.

Mike Hydeck: State Senator Heather Somers, we have to leave it there. Thanks so much for joining us on Face the Facts. We appreciate your time.

Heather Somers: Thank you.

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