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    Op-Ed
    Thursday, May 30, 2024

    Finding balance in questions of parole

    On May 20, 1969, Warren Kimbro and two other Black Panthers drove suspected FBI informant Alex Rackley to a swamp in Middlefield where Kimbro put a bullet into the back of Rackley's head. The two Panthers then dumped the lifeless body into the Coginchaug River.

    Two days later, police arrested Kimbro on a charge of first-degree murder. When he confessed and agreed to turn state's evidence, Kimbro was convicted instead of second-degree murder and sentenced to what should been a mandatory life sentence. Instead, after serving only 4 1/2 years, he was paroled.

    Normally, that's the type of seemingly soft handling of hard crime that sparks outrage among us law-and-order types. However, Kimbro assured the state's parole board that he had turned his life around and was committed to helping others. Normally, we would think they all say that then return to a life of crime, but Kimbro was different.

    He had been a model prisoner, counseling other inmates and editing the prison newspaper. Once freed, he earned a graduate degree from Harvard and was hired in the mid-1970s as Associate Dean of Student Affairs at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic.

    That's where I met the lanky, 40-year-old man whose quick smile and outgoing manner personified anyone other than a cold-blooded killer. Warren, as he insisted we call him, would become a mentor and good friend to my buddies and me during our time as Eastern undergraduates. He strongly encouraged our extracurricular work in student government and the campus newspaper. His door was always open to us, whether we needed guidance or just wanted to stop to chat. I listed him as a reference when I started looking for work in my senior year.

    Beneath the idyllic surface, though, he was restless. He didn't talk about it, but there was a higher calling for him than working a state administrative job out of a spacious, new office, overseeing mostly white, suburban college kids. A few years after we had graduated in the late ‘70s, Kimbro had left Eastern and was back in his native New Haven working as president and CEO of Project MORE, a not-for-profit program that helps ex-convicts re-enter society, get jobs and stay out of prison. During his 25 years at Project MORE, he helped hundreds, perhaps thousands, improve their lives.

    Now, decades later, I've thought a lot about Warren Kimbro after the recent spate of Connecticut prison sentence commutations. After commuting no more than three sentences in any year since 2016, the Board of Pardons and Paroles opened the flood gates in 2022 and commuted 71. Of those, more than half (44) whose sentences were commuted were in for murder.

    The startling increase in commutations prompted criticism among Republicans legislators, led by Sen. Heather Somers of Groton, who called for closer scrutiny, clearer transparency and more input from victims and their families. Clearly, in light of the spike in commutations, that's the least the state can implement.

    "We need to decide collectively what the policy is - what is just, what is fair, what is right," Somers said. "Through engagement and through dialogue, we can make survivors' voices heard and effect positive change."

    Even Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont was concerned enough to remove Carleton Giles as the parole board's chairman. However, the governor didn't withdraw his nomination of Giles, who was then re-appointed to the board by the legislature, largely along party lines, to serve another five-year term. At the same time, the board put a temporary hold on additional commutations until the policy can be revised. It'll be interesting to see in five or 10 years what has become of those 71 inmates who were granted commutations last year.

    Crime victims and/or their loved ones need to know in advance when a prisoner is even being considered for parole, and they deserve a significant say in whether that happens. More than half of parolees - and as many as 70 percent in some states - were rearrested within five years of being freed, according to a national study by the Center on Media, Crime & Justice at John Jay College.

    However, there's also a human component among those who apply. How likely is it that if they're given the benefit of the doubt by the state they'll become productive, self-sustaining members of society?

    Years ago, someone saw the potential for good in Warren Kimbro despite his conviction only a few years earlier for murdering a 24-year-old man. Despite the horrific nature of the crime, Kimbro made the most of his second chance until he died from a heart attack in 2009, according to Douglas Rae, a Yale professor who served on Project MORE's Board of Directors and co-authored a book about Kimbro's life.

    "The most important part of Warren Kimbro's life began when he left prison," Rae told the Los Angeles Times. "He was a remarkable leader who set a tone and a standard in the New Haven community that hundreds of us learned to respect."

    It remains to be seen how many of those now enjoying their newfound freedom will follow Kimbro's example.

    Bill Stanley, a former reporter at The Day, is a retired vice president of Lawrence + Memorial Hospital.

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