If you want to get a feel for how promising and dangerous the space of empirical socio-legal research in at the present conjuncture, 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.
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).