Joan Petersilia: A Life’s Work Focusing on America’s Prison Challenges

Joan Petersilia: A Life’s Work Focusing on America’s Prison Challenges 1
Joan Petersilia, the Adelbert H. Sweet Professor of Law and recipient of the 2014 Stockholm Prize in Criminology (Photo by Timothy Archibald)

The official commendation explaining the selection of Joan Petersilia for the Stockholm Prize in Criminology begins, “Your research has provided compelling evidence on the staggering needs of American prisoners returning to their communities, and the importance of their reintegration for public safety.” At a June award ceremony in Sweden, Petersilia, the Adelbert H. Sweet Professor of Law, received the 2014 prize, the most prestigious award in the field, for her work on prisoner reentry stretching back some 30 years.

The issues surrounding incarceration are complex, often wrapped up in emotion, regret, and pain,” she says. “It is imperative that we cut through to see the issues, to understand the data. How can we best rehabilitate the incarcerated so that they can successfully rejoin society and not reoffend? This is in everyone’s interest. And I’m honored that the International Stockholm Prize jury recognized not only my work but that of my colleagues in the field.” 

“It’s no surprise that Joan has received what is the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in criminology,” says M. Elizabeth Magill, Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean of Stanford Law School. “Joan’s work has opened up whole new avenues of research and helped shape our national conversation on sentencing policy.”

An empirical researcher and social scientist, Petersilia joined the Stanford Law faculty in 2009, bringing a wealth of knowledge about the criminology field and methodology. She came with a track record of “embedded research,” an area of the field that she has helped to develop with direct research specifically for policymakers. Not only has she shared with her students the important work of policy development through her policy seminars—but she also laid the groundwork for the law school’s new Policy Lab, which engages students in practical research working with policy “clients,” by showing how it might be done.

Petersilia began her career at the RAND Corporation, where she was director of the Criminal Justice Program, publishing landmark works such as Crime and Public Policy (a series, now in its fourth edition, that she edited with renowned political scientist James Q. Wilson), Community Corrections, and California’s Correctional Paradox of Excess and Deprivation. She joined the academy in 1992 as a professor of criminology, law, and society at UC Irvine, where she published When Prisoners Come Home in 2003. Lawrence Sherman, the co-chair of the international committee that awarded her the criminology prize, called the book “a landmark” in prompting criminologists and people in government to realize “the enormity of the challenge” posed by the more than 750,000 prisoners released every year in the United States—more than two thousand per day.

She began advising the state of California in 2007, first serving as a special advisor to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, helping to reorganize juvenile and adult corrections and working with the California State Legislature to implement prison and parole reform. She chaired Governor Schwarzenegger’s Rehabilitation Strike Team and was also co-chair of California’s Expert Panel on Offender Programs. She continues to advise the California Legislature on matters related to California’s Public Safety Realignment Law of 2011 (AB 109), the state’s historic attempt to downsize prisons and enhance rehabilitation—making it a key focus of her recent research both in and outside of the classroom and involving her Stanford Law students in a “real-time” research project.

That Petersilia has chosen to take on America’s prisons as her life’s work is testament to the challenges the system faces. The United States imprisons more people, and a larger share of its population, than any other nation. Counting inmates in jails as well as in prisons, the number behind bars recently peaked at about 2.4 million or almost 25 percent of all of the prisoners in the world.

As the U.S. prison population grew exponentially and the cost of incarceration skyrocketed, Professor Petersilia explained, “policy-makers in many states decided to run austere, ‘no-frills’ prisons and to cut back funding for programs and services.” The result, she observed, was that released inmates were unprepared for life on the outside, with many of them mentally ill and many more ending up homeless, without family, work, or even monitoring by the government to support them. They faced “an increasing likelihood of being returned to prison for parole violations or new crimes.” Two out of every three people released from prison were rearrested within three years. One out of every four was sent back to prison. Petersilia’s seminal 2003 book and subsequent research provide a clear, original, and bracing warning that the problem of prisoner reentry is even bigger and more challenging than the draconian sentencing that led to the current mass incarceration. The United States, she explained in the book, debated “who should go to prison, for how long, and how we might pay for it, and we paid virtually no attention to how we would cope with prisoners after they left prison.”

It is against this background that Petersilia’s current work takes place. She has led three additional policy seminars, most recently with students reporting to Governor Jerry Brown. Her work fills a need in state government for unbiased research on a challenge that has taken its toll on citizens in monetary terms, but also in human ones.

In 2011, California began what Petersilia describes as “the biggest penal experiment in modern history.” The state shifted to its counties the responsibility of monitoring, tracking, and incarcerating lower-level offenders previously bound for state prison, in what it calls a “realignment.” California undertook such realignment because of a dramatic decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which found conditions unconstitutional and ordered the state to reduce its prison population by around 30,000 prisoners—almost one fifth.

The experiment underscores the value of the kind of work that Petersilia, as a social scientist rather than a lawyer, came to Stanford Law School to do. For two academic years beginning in 2011, she taught the Advanced Seminar on Criminal Law and Public Policy, about realignment and the paroling of prison “lifers.” 

Forty students worked closely with the state to study the consequences of these initiatives and, based on the evidence, to recommend improvements. Students summarized the findings and answered questions about them at a meeting with Governor Brown. 

Petersilia received Stanford University’s 2013 Miriam Aaron Roland Volunteer Service Prize—for integrating her academic scholarship with noteworthy service to society and involving students in that effort. Robert Weisberg, Edwin E. Huddleson, Jr. Professor of Law and co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, nominated Petersilia for the award, calling her a “Pied Piper of a new research-based form of legal education.”

The realignment seminar was especially important to Petersilia because she is concerned that “a propitious opportunity for reform” will be squandered “if good intentions are not reinforced by sound policy and practice.” As she counseled in When Prisoners Come Home, “Refocusing the justice system around a reentry perspective represents a fundamental paradigm shift … .” It requires preparing families and communities for the release of prisoners, she says. It also requires equipping prisoners to prepare themselves behind bars for sustained success when they return home. SL 

1 Response to Joan Petersilia: A Life’s Work Focusing on America’s Prison Challenges
  1. Hello…we need court reform and get the corruption out of the police/detcetive departments. Then we need to be more specific on child crimes.( not just a he said she said) but evidence to back up their stories. Unless proof can be found shouldn’t be charge a 288a penal code. Just making something not sexual sexual the courts are sending a lot of young people to prison for a very long time. Not being familiar with the court system hiring an experienced lawyer and doing what he tells you, you get screwed. Never been in trouble put yourself through college then you piss someone off, they make up stuff to get you arrested and all they can say is in a he said she said case they will never believe the caregiver..
    I’m so angry how vague the law is and how grown ups make things sound worse than it is so the supposed victims think they were violated but never were.

Comments are closed.