A Reformer of Criminal Justice: Joan Petersilia, 1951-2019

Criminologist Joan Petersilia spent her career examining the agencies that conduct U.S. criminal justice, and her work was a major influence in affecting corrections and sentencing reforms. Through her 11 books, Petersilia disseminated research looking at convict reintegration, the incarceration process, and racial disparities within the prison system. Her research was a steppingstone for change within the criminal justice policies in California, where she made her professional home, and across the United States.

“I believe that there are programs and policies that are in place today that would not be there except for my contributions. I learned that academics and their scientific knowledge can be instrumental to the change process—not always but at least sometimes. My hope in sharing these observations is that others will be encouraged to replicate my embedded criminology experiences in their own states and communities,” she wrote in “Influencing public policy: an embedded criminologist reflects on California prison reform,” a 2007 lecture she gave on winning the Joan McCord Prize at the Academy of Experimental Criminology.

This commitment to research-based policy suggestions led California, Michigan and Texas to analyze procedures that used an inmate’s social-economic background to determine a sentence. The concept of an equal procedure to determine punishment for all races reflected Petersilia’s devotion to correctly implementing due process of law.

Stanford Law Professor Joan Petersilia shown after she won the 2013 Roland Volunteer Service Prize for her efforts integrating scholarship and community service. (Photo: Stanford University)

Petersilia spent over three decades of her life creating prominent change in the criminal justice system. After a fighting with ovarian cancer, Petersilia lost her battle on September 23, at the age of 68. Her life will be acknowledged by the vast amount of change she created in the criminal justice field, sentencing reforms that allowed many small offence criminals to return home are owed to Petersilia.

Petersilia was born on January 2, 1951, in Pittsburgh. She was the third of four daughters born to an Air Force family, which saw them move frequently. Her higher education began in California, a state she would call home, receiving a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Loyola Marymount University of Los Angeles in 1972. She attended The Ohio State University and earned a master’s in sociology before joining the Southern California-based think tank RAND Corporation, where she would spend two decades. As director of RAND’s Criminal Justice Program, Petersilia penned landmark books including the initial Crime and Public Policy (edited with James Q. Wilson) and California’s Correctional Paradox of Excess and Deprivation.

While at RAND, Petersilia earned her PhD in criminology, law and society in 1990 at the University of California-Irvine. In 1994 she returned to Irvine-as a professor of law and society and criminology and was founding director of the Center for Evidence-Based Corrections.

Before joining the Stanford Law School as the Adalbert H. Sweet Professor of Law and co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center in 2009, Petersilia advised then-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Her work with the California Legislature helped restructure adult and juvenile corrections in order to enact new parole and prison systems.

As part of a loving tribute at the Stanford Lawyer, Matthew Cate, who as then-secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation worked with Petersilia and her students to study how a sentencing-law change was implemented in one California county, praised her talent and her humanity. “Joan brought data and analytics to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. That science let us turn the ship towards evidence-based practices, a focus on rehabilitation, and eventually to realignment, which together have reduced the overall prison population in California.”

In 2014, Petersilia’s won the Stockholm Prize in Criminology, often seen as the equivalent to a Nobel Prize in that field. “Joan was a giant intellect whose contributions to improving our criminal justice system are immense and will thankfully survive us all,” said former California Governor Jerry Brown. “I was honored to know and work with her. Anne and I send our warmest regards to her family and colleagues.”

She headed many criminology associations and task forces, serving as president of both the American Society of Criminology and the California Association for Criminal Justice Research; co-directing the National Research Council’s study on Community Supervision and Desistance from Crime; and directing the National Research Council’s study on Crime Victims with Developmental Disabilities.

Petersilia,, the 2018 Thorsten Sellin Fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science,  influenced many students through her practices along with motivating her colleagues to create change in the criminal justice system

“Even more importantly,” the UC Irvine School of Social Ecology eulogized, “she was a loving wife, mother, and sister; a good friend; an engaged community member; and consummate public servant committed to positioning social science analyses front and center when it comes to doing all we can to ensure criminal justice systems better people’s lives, including by delivering justice.”

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Alejandro Hernandez

Alejandro Hernandez is the corporate communications intern at SAGE Publishing. He is currently studying communications at California State University, Northridge.

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