What I Learned About Prisons at My School Reunion

What factors determine suitability for parole for “Lifers” in California?

Posted Nov 06, 2012

John Dannenberg

John Dannenberg, my young classmate

Statistics say “Lifers” like John Dannenberg are the least likely of all released prisoners to commit another crime: .06%. But even though they may be deemed suitable for release, governors often refuse to release them for political reasons and they die in prison. Gray Davis was the worst. He released only 5, of which 3 were women, because he feared appearing weak on crime. Jerry Brown has not released 83% of the Lifers who are suitable for release even though they’ve paid for their crime. If they look like a bad risk, the law provides for them to stay in prison.

One of my most brilliant classmates from the class of ’57 at El Cerrito High committed a crime for which he was sentenced 15 years to life. For 15 years he was disciplinary-free, he enrolled in self-improvement programs, his psychological reports claimed he was no danger to the community, and he was never in trouble before the crime.

David Mar in The San Quentin News wrote, “John Dannenberg composed countless writs, motions and legal briefs for himself and his peers during his 23 years behind bars. His list of accomplishments in the courts brought him a well-deserved reputation throughout the state as one of the preeminent and most prolific legal minds among ‘jailhouse’ lawyers… His diligence and perseverance paid off when the 6th District Court of Appeal, for the second time in two years, ordered his release on parole…

The former Los Altos businessman was serving a sentence of 15-years-to-life for a second degree murder conviction in the 1985 death of his wife, Linda. His bid for freedom propelled his case to the California Supreme Court and resulted in a major ruling, overturned three years later, that used ‘the elements of an offense’ to lengthen the time spent in prison for many Lifers. This allowed the governor or parole board to deny parole in cases in which the elements of the crime were determined to be more heinous than those of a similar offense. Dannenberg was deemed suitable for parole in 2005, but Gov. Schwarzenegger overturned the decision, citing the ‘egregious’ nature of the offense.

Ultimately, a Supreme Court ruling in the landmark case of Sandra Lawrence paved the way for his release. In the Lawrence decision, the court ruled that ‘public safety’ and an inmate’s ‘current dangerousness’ are the relevant factors in determining suitability for parole.” So the original crime should not be a factor after the term sentence has been served! The parole boards and the governor break the law if they don’t allow the prisoner to go free if he is not a danger.

‘The future is bright for others in my shoes, thanks to the decision in Lawrence,’ said Dannenberg. ‘I encourage everyone to file in the courts for their release under this ruling...’ Dannenberg has contributed over 950 articles to Prison Legal News, participated in the Alternatives to Violence program, Breaking Barriers, Restorative Justice, New Leaf On Life, the Men’s Advisory Council and spent time as a law librarian… He is a strong advocate for prison reform, focusing on the inadequacy of the entire prison system. ‘It lacks direction,’ said Dannenberg.

Summing up what his release means to him, he said, ‘It’s a beautiful thing after all these years,’ with a smile that lit the room.”

How many other states’ prisons lack direction the way California does?


This blog is based on a podcast by Peter B. Collins and an article in the San Quentin News of Feb. 26 2009 “Jailhouse Lawyer”

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About the Author

Elizabeth Wagele was the co-author with Ingrid Stabb of The Career Within You: How to Find the Perfect Job for Your Personality.

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