A Prison Without Hope Is a Dangerous Place

By David Feige

Thousands of California inmates have a little less to live for this week thanks to a California Supreme Court decision that helps cement the state's shift in penal philosophy from rehabilitation to rank retribution.

The court's decision in the case of John Dannenberg, handed down last week, allows the state parole board to deny parole to inmates solely on the nature of their original offense. Even if an inmate has an unblemished record in prison, and even if an inmate is deemed not to be dangerous by mental health and prison officials, the court ruled, the parole board may determine that the original crime was so heinous that the prisoner should be denied release.

Obviously, that's demoralizing for inmates. But it also reflects a depressing and unhealthy strain of penal philosophy - one that rejects the idea that criminals can be rehabilitated and endorses the view that a single evil act can render someone utterly irredeemable.

Traditionally, criminal sentences have been designed to address the severity of the crime. (And in some cases, crimes are held to be so severe that the criminal is deemed ineligible for parole.) Back-end release mechanisms, on the other hand, have sought to gauge the success of the sentence or punishment. Solely considering the severity of the crime in the parole decision turns this notion on its head.

By allowing parole boards to ignore an offender's conduct after the crime, the court has endorsed an approach in which a single inalterable moment can erase any subsequent conduct. And although that inflexible, retributive system might appeal to some, allowing permanent incarceration without regard to rehabilitation is bad social policy.

It is already terribly hard to get out of prison. Despite spotless prison records, or a decade or more of strong evidence of rehabilitation, parole is elusive for thousands of inmates serving parole-eligible life sentences.

More than 95% of those who apply are rejected by the parole board, and of the few who actually receive a recommendation of parole, a little more than a third are released by the governor.

Yet even this faint hope of release and redemption is enough to encourage many inmates to spend years or decades becoming model prisoners - which is undeniably good for the public, good for the prison system and good for the offender. That seems to be the case with 64-year-old John Dannenberg, who murdered his wife in 1985 and who has since served 18 years in San Quentin. Dannenberg has a spotless record in prison and favorable psychological evaluations. His two children, both adults, support his release. But what's the point of spending a decade or two compiling a perfect prison record if that record might not even be considered?

Even those who favor a retributive penal system should oppose this decision. Creating reasonable incentives is consonant with American ideals. In almost every arena of society, we celebrate reward systems as integral to a "work hard and earn your reward" culture.

The Dannenberg decision, though, fundamentally rejects this vision, and in so doing flies in the face of our society's most fundamental ideas about redemption.

Imagine the hue and cry from the business world if the Dannenberg case rationale were applied to corporate compensation: No matter how much a company grew and prospered under his leadership, a CEO could be denied a bonus because he failed finance in college.

Inmates make easy targets, and curtailing parole, especially for those serving indeterminate life-maximum terms, is politically easy. Yet the cost to prison stability and to taxpayers is not insignificant.

This year, California will spend more than $5 billion to maintain its prison system, with many of the state's 31,000 prison guards earning more than public school teachers. The Dannenberg decision relegates an entire class of inmates to the vagaries of the political realm, where their fortunes are dictated by attitudes toward crime rather than rehabilitation, proportionality, justice or common sense.

The decision is a tragedy for taxpayers, who are footing the bill for the continued incarceration of those long since rehabilitated, for the wardens charged with guarding those who may now be without hope of freedom and for the inmates themselves, to whom the state has said, in essence, "After what you've done, don't bother to be good."

As satisfying as it may be to create an extraordinarily punitive prison system, leaving thousands of inmates with nothing to hope for is not only brutal, it's scary because, as any warden will tell you, a prison without hope is a dangerous place indeed.

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David Feige, a public defender in the Bronx and a Soros Media Justice Fellow, is the author of the book "Indefensible", to be published in 2005.

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