Thursday, September 26, 2019

Joan Petersilia


I never met Joan Petersilia, the award-winning Stanford Law professor who passed away earlier this week, but she was an influential person in my life.  She was part of a small pantheon of creative thinkers who were writing about criminal justice in a grounded, pragmatic way as the Center for Court Innovation was emerging as an institution.  Along with people like Herman Goldstein and Malcolm Feeley and George Kelling, Petersilia demonstrated that it was possible to a) write in plain, understandable language, b) bridge the worlds of theory and practice, and c) occupy a space that is open to good ideas and input across a broad ideological spectrum.  I have attempted to carry forward  these values in my own work. 

While I never was in the same room with Petersilia, I did have a relationship with her. She was a good email correspondent. A lot of the tributes I have read since Petersilia's passing have highlighted her warmth and generosity. I can personally attest to these qualities. She was nice enough to offer a blurb for Trial & Error in Criminal Justice Reform, the book that I wrote with Aubrey Fox.  Even more important, she agreed to participate in the interviews we were conducting around the topic of failure in the criminal justice system.  I think this conversation offers a window into how her mind worked.  This passage in particular has stuck with me:

There’s a long history of over-promising and under-delivering that has contributed to the constant pendulum swings in punishment practices.  There’s nothing in our history of over 100 years of reform that says that we know how to reduce recidivism by more than 15 or 20 percent. And to achieve those rather modest outcomes, you have to get everything right – the right staff, delivering the right program, at the right time in the offender’s life, and in a supportive community environment. We just have to be more honest about that, and my sense is that we have not been publically forthcoming because we’ve assumed that we would not win public support with modest results.  I was naive about the impact that intermediate sanctions would have on prison commitments, and have become much more realistic about what success we can have, and what the financial costs will be. It isn’t that we can’t deliver effective programs, but we usually don’t do the implementation groundwork nor fund them sufficiently. The field is littered with broken promises in this regard, and I am trying not to make that mistake around reentry programs. In California, I make it a habit to tell elected officials and correctional practitioners that in the short term, it’s not possible to deliver good programs and save money at the same time. I feel that I’ve been able to sell more modest expectations in California, but I’m not sure if that works in other states. It takes a lot of education and working closely with decisionmakers, but it is worth it.
I wish I had a nickel for every time I have quoted this passage. As the rhetoric about criminal justice gets more heated and more aspirational, with many folks clamoring for the complete transformation of the system from soup to nuts, I find myself particularly missing Petersilia's voice.  Her credibiltiy, her realism, and her modesty will be difficult to replace.