Criminologist Joan Petersilia shares her thoughts about the importance of modest expectations for criminal justice reform, the scientific legacy of Robert Martinson, and how best to prepare for high-profile tragedies that can threaten criminal justice reform efforts.
(To read this interview in Spanish, click here. A leer esta entrevista en español, haga clic aquí).
Petersilia is a law professor at Stanford, former president of the American Society of Criminology, and co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. Her research interests include designing and replicating randomized experiments, primarily in correctional settings, and fostering the use of scientific knowledge in policy environments.
You’ve been involved in criminal justice reform efforts for the last 30 years. Have these efforts been a success or a failure?
I have seen both at different times. I think the question we’ve been asking for the last thirty years has remained the same: is it possible to create community-based sanctions and programs that compete philosophically and operationally with institutional corrections (jails and prisons). I was involved with the intermediate sanctions movement in the 1970s and 1980s, where we were very excited about the potential of community sanctions as alternatives to prison. But in a way, we lost that argument as prison populations continued to soar. Now, as a nation, we’ve shifted to looking at what happens when someone is released from prison—the prisoner reentry movement. To me, it is still basically the same practical and philosophical issues, involving the same arguments and almost exactly the same people. Seen over a longer 30-year period, I don’t think we’ve failed, because the energy and momentum around the re-entry movement comes in part from our moderate success at changing the conversation about corrections in the 1980s. On the other hand, I think it’s reasonable to ask how well we have succeeded at reducing America’s reliance on incarceration, despite our good intentions.
Why is it that criminal justice reform efforts tend to follow a cycle where initial optimism is followed by disillusionment and the abandonment of reform efforts?
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.
What do you see as the legacy of Robert Martinson’s famous 1974 declaration that “nothing works” to rehabilitate criminals?
From a policy perspective, it was negative, because it pulled the rug out from under those who wanted to provide rehabilitative programming to offenders. But from a scientific perspective, it was incredibly positive. It made people focus on evaluation and performance measures—to collect and analyze more rigorous data and implement randomized experiments. I don’t think the science of criminology and criminal justice evaluation would be where it is today without Martinson’s very negative rehabilitation program assessment. The data now supports the mantra that “some things work for some people, some of the time, in some settings.” It’s not as catchy as “nothing works” or “everything works,” but it is a truer and more nuanced understanding of rehabilitation and perhaps we owe that to Martinson.
Martinson was also very good at promoting his work. Is there a lesson in there for researchers?
Very much so. Martinson was an interesting guy. He was only a research assistant on the original New York project, but he was a frustrated actor, had a very engaging personality, and eventually became the study’s public face, appearing on 60 Minutes and making presentations around the country. He is the reason I think that the ‘story had legs.’ I am a strong believer that no good research should go sit on the shelves, and we must spend a lot of time translating research findings and presenting policy implications for decisionmakers. I spend a lot of my time doing that and it is probably the most rewarding part of my career.
Speaking of Martinson, what was your reaction to the 2005 report issued by the Urban Institute entitled “Does Parole Work?” that answered the question largely in the negative?
The reaction in the field to the report was defensive, but understandably so, for all those practitioners in state after state doing good work had to backpedal and defend what they were doing after the report came out. Still, I think the Urban Institute researchers did the best they could given the data that they had to work with. They used national information from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which made it hard to really answer the question of whether parole works in a particular state. But it’s the data that currently exists and it’s absolutely the right question to ask. As with Martinson, the Urban Institute study and the publicity surrounding it has forced the field to produce better information to counter the negative findings. For example, I just received an article that looks more specifically at parole outcomes in New Jersey. I was supportive of the Urban Institute study because they did the best with the data out there and ended up forcing the conversation in a positive direction.
How do you see the re-entry movement going in the next decade or so?
Conditions on the ground are changing. The re-entry movement took hold as crime rates were declining and economy was strong. Now we face a different situation. I can imagine the public being less generous with funding, which doesn’t bode well for expanding reentry services. On the other hand, the budget woes that states are going through can provide an important impetus for change. If California wasn’t facing a $15 billion budget deficit, there’s no way we would have been able to introduce some of the reforms we’ve recently considered. Finally, I’m optimistic about how the reentry movement has been framed. The focus is not only on rehabilitation, which is important. But reentry doesn’t just prioritize the offender’s need for services, it also prioritizes public safety. As such, it has a much larger political and community constituency. Ultimately, though, I don’t have a crystal ball. We could have another decade of improved corrections programs and policies, or we could see the pendulum swing back to more bare-bones prison and parole policies.
One common fear among reformers is that a single high-profile case could halt reform efforts. How do you get around that?
It’s a very important issue. In California, we are planning to implement a new technical violation matrix. We know that at some point, there’s going to be someone who commits a new crime who we earlier had decided not to put back in jail. You can’t be caught like a deer in the headlights when that happens. I had a conversation about this with Governor Schwarzenegger. He has the political presence required to deliver the message in a tough situation that on balance, this is a better system. In the event that something terrible happens, the message has to come from him if we want to stay the course.