Clinic Mobilizes to Confront Suspension in Commutations

Hartford Capitol
The State Capitol building in Hartford, Connecticut. Gov. Ned Lamont removed the chair of the Board of Pardons and Paroles and in April announced an indefinite suspension in commutations altogether.

Students in the Challenging Mass Incarceration Clinic (CMIC) have responded to a pause in commutations by the state of Connecticut with multipronged efforts to build a coalition of local and national advocates to defend the commutation process.

In the 1880s, the Connecticut legislature delegated the commutation power to an independent Board. Since then, the Connecticut Board of Pardons and Paroles has exercised the commutation authority. In the two years before the COVID-19 pandemic and during the pandemic’s height, the Board had ceased accepting commutation applications. The Board resumed accepting applications in 2021.

In March of this year, a group of victims and legislators held a press conference raising complaints about the Board’s consideration of commutations over the past two years.

Following the press conference, Gov. Ned Lamont removed the chair of the Board of Pardons and Paroles and in April announced an indefinite suspension in commutations altogether.

In response, the clinic — led by Clinical Professor of Law Miriam Gohara, Clinical Lecturer in Law Daniel Loehr, and Maurice R. Greenberg Visiting Professor of Law Robin Walker Sterling — sent a packet of letters from national criminal justice organizations expressing concern about the suspension.

LISTEN: Clinical Professor Miriam Gohara discusses the suspension of commutations on Connecticut Public Radio

CMIC students worked quickly to explain Connecticut’s complex commutation process to organizations along with the political context.

“The commutation pause has been incredibly concerning and has personally impacted the clinic’s clients,” said Katherine Salinas ’25, a law student intern with the clinic. “The pause makes Connecticut the only state in the country without a commutation mechanism; for that reason, we knew we had to let national organizations know about what’s happening in Connecticut.” 

In response to the commutation pause, students met with stakeholders and advocates locally and nationally, wrote statements, and created media strategies as part of their work to urge the state to resume the commutation process. The resulting packet included letters from groups such as the Vera Institute of Justice, the ACLU, and The Sentencing Project, We Got Us Now, the National Lawyers Guild, and Fair & Just Prosecution.

The clinic’s work demands creative and comprehensive strategies, according to clinic member Chisato Kimura ’25.

“Sometimes nonlegal strategies are an important tool for all legal advocates,” Kimura said. “This opportunity for legal and nonlegal advocacy has taught us about the importance of persuasive storytelling and thinking outside the box in strategizing for our clients.”

Students also led an email campaign within the YLS community resulting in more than 75 emails sent to the Board requesting a resumption of commutations. They drafted talking points that have been circulated to advocates for criminal justice reform across Connecticut.

Sydney Daniels ’24, another student in the CMIC, said that when most people think about lawyers’ roles working on behalf of incarcerated people, they think of lawyers filing lawsuits. But the clinic’s work has expanded her understanding of what lawyering can be — not just before a judge and jury but before state bureaucracy, legislators, and others.

“We have built an integrated advocacy campaign wherein litigation is just one of many tools in our toolkit,” Daniels said. “The most essential tool? Our ability to tell a story — no matter the audience, no matter the medium— that humanizes our clients and serves as a reminder that we all deserve a second chance because we are more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”