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
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
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).