Friday, May 11, 2007

The Professor and the Governor

If you want to get a feel for how complex is the challenge for an academic who hopes to transform California's culture of mass imprisonment with evidence based criminology, keep your eye on UC Irvine criminologist Joan Petersilia.

Professor Petersilia, one of the nation’s leading experts on parole and reentry, has become Governor Schwarzenegger’s main policy advisor on reforming California’s behemoth and crisis ridden prison system. Governors in recent decades have largely foresworn academic policy experts, especially on topics like crime but through that analogy on many others. Instead they have privately surrounded themselves with pollsters and political consultants while publicly surrounding themselves with uniformed law enforcement officers and victims. Governor Schwarzenegger is doing both. A visit to the prison reform section of his very dynamic webpage shows you both visions.

In the still frame that begins the video of Governor Schwarzenegger signing AB 900, a massive new prison construction bill, he is surrounded by uniformed law enforcement officials and in the background, some victim’s advocates. This is how governors have represented themselves in the age of governing through crime. Victims are stand ins for all citizens, and law enforcement as representations of a state protecting people from crime (while being exposed to it themselves). In this pose Schwarzenegger, as many governors before him, is represented as governing by providing direct personal protection from violent crime to ordinary citizens and to law enforcement, largely by moving massive numbers of Californians from their communities to prisons. The bill he signed and declared a major break with California penal policy, will actually add 53 thousand new prison beds to a system that has grown from about 20 thousand total prisoners in 1980 to almost 200 thousand today.

If you click the link labeled, “comprehensive prison reform,” you see a picture of Professor Joan Petersilia in the upper right hand corner.

On the accompanying video, Professor Petersilia touts the emphasis on rehabilitation in the new law. No governor in nearly thirty years has chosen to associate themselves with academic criminology as a form of state knowledge. In doing so, Schwarzenegger is invoking a New Deal style of leadership (“the brain trust”) that has been virtually absent in the era of governing through crime. Professor Petersilia in her many public appearances and publications in recent months has emerged as an advocate for reducing California’s prison population and its chronic use of parole to recycle the vast majority of released prisoners back to prison. This possibility, embraced by the governor as well, is represented in the recent law by provisions requiring the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to reach certain benchmarks in establishing effective rehabilitation programs before a second round of money is released to build more prison bed space. Other provisions supported by Professor Petersilia, including establishment of a sentencing commission to reconsider who gets sent to prison in the first place, and program to house most of California’s growing female prisoner population, in special facilities nearer to their communities, never made it into the final bill.

Petersilia has taken a hard and exposed road. She has become a public icon for criminology in the service of a political leadership that has continued to support the principle of mass imprisonment. She has remained a clear spoken truth teller committed to empirical rather than ideological answers to the state’s prison crisis. During her recent appearance on Forum, a Bay Area public radio show frequently devoted to debating public policy, Professor Petersilia embraced these tensions, strongly supporting the law as a necessary step forward while agreeing with every critic about the fact that California imprisons far too many of its people.

Can Joan help lead us out of an age of governing through crime and back to a time when American political leaders viewed empirical socio-legal research as a key technology of governance? I don’t know, but I think She is a hero for trying. I’m going to keep watching (and help if I can).


Michael Zhou said...

But given the mass public's distrust of intellectuals, do you really think that an academically-based policy solution will have much political sway? In other words, would politicians really justify policy based on academic research when their constituents neither have the necessary training to participate in an academic discourse nor the trust of intellectuals in general?

Jonathan Simon said...

I agree with you that academics as such often appear to be elites whose values are not trusted by the public, in California and elsewhere. But empiricism has more resonance, and the appeal to evidence based policy, and academic research as a scientific way of validating whether policies are working, may have more success. Schwarzenegger is, however, taking a risk in this approach which harkens back to the New Deal.

Volker Janssen said...

What if Joan Petersilia, quite empirically, pointed out that our sentencing laws produce an ever growing and aging prison population that will fill these additional fifty thousand beds quickly, so that we will face the same dilemma again in five to ten years? The resonance of empiricism with the public may end then. The rise of criminological empiricism in the 1970s invoked many ghosts, but it can't put the genie back in the bottle in the same way, I suspect.

JSN said...

The dilemma is that there are many returnees who serve short sentences (less than five years) for drugs and property crimes who have violated parole or have committed a new felony.

The BOP is not interested in releasing someone on parole who they have already revoked. As a consequence the pool of potential parolees is not as large as one would think.

ImTrixKat said...

I am a two time ex-offender who discharged my number in 2001. I got lucky. Well, to give my self credit, I got smart too.
Today I have graduated with an AS in Human Services which includes a certificate in Criminal Justice. I live close to UCI where Joan teaches and would be honored to study under her. Anyone in the field would. The gov should feel honored to have her on his team. I am active in our local PACT meetings - something that they didn't have when I came home (Parole and Community Teams). We offer services to parolees at a meeting they must attend their two weeks home. We offer them a LOT of hope and understanding at our Orange County meetings. I have heard that it's not like that at all meetings. My point, as long and dragged out as it has been, is that if we were to put most of our focus on the parolees, stem the tide there, if we could cut the recidivism rate by even 1/2 of the 70% starting with those that come home today, they would start feeling the effects immediately. Do I have a plan? yes. Can I implement it today? no. Will I keep working on it until I can get it or something like it off the ground? you bet. Who do I think are the best ones to pull this off together? Parolees working together. Parolees need three things when they get home:
Place to LIVE
Place to WORK
Oops, the anacronym for that could be LAWS~how ironic is that!
Well, that's my blab blog for today.

JSN said...


Thank you for your story. We have a mentoring program in Des Moines started by former women prison inmates for new women parolees. They help them find a place to live and a job and advise them on how to solve the many problems of living on the outside. The Iowa BOP gave the parolees in the program permission to be in contact with felons.

I attended one of their programs and a number of them said if they had not been helped by a mentor they would have been back in prison within a few weeks. I hope we can get similar programs started in other cities. I was happy to learn that you have something similar.