The California Supreme Court appears divided over whether the state parole board exceeded its authority in routinely declining to set release dates for murderers and other convicted criminals who come before it, the Los Angeles Times reports. The Board of Prison Terms, whose nine members are appointed by the governor, decides the fate of prisoners whose sentences make them eligible for parole. Over the last 13 years, the board has approved release for fewer than five percent. The court will decide within 90 days whether the board has for 25 years followed improper rules in deciding who deserves parole. Invalidating current practice could mean earlier parole dates for numerous eligible convicts. Said Kathleen Kahn, whose client was denied parole three times and brought the case before the court,. “We’re calling into question the whole way they do business.”
At least two justices appeared disinclined to reshape the way the board operates. Justice Marvin Baxter suggested that state legislators would have intervened by now if they thought that the board was not abiding by the 1976 law that governs its work. Other justices seemed troubled by the board’s practices, which result in a denial of parole for most of the about 3,000 eligible convicts who come before it each year. They appeared critical of the board’s conclusion that many inmates with spotless prison records and positive psychological reports do not deserve parole because of the nature of their crimes. The case involves John Dannenberg, 64, who was a wealthy Bay Area engineer when he was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison – with the possibility of parole – for killing his wife, Linda, during a fight in their home. During 18 years behind bars, Dannenberg has had an unblemished record, and psychologists say he is unlikely to commit another violent act. He has no previous criminal history and enjoys support from his two children. The parole board has refused on three occasions to grant Dannenberg his freedom.