Center for Advancing Correctional Excellence logo
  A Conversation with Joan Petersilia, Ph.D.  
Joan Petersilia, Ph.D. is a Adelbert H. Sweet Professor of Law at Stanford Law School. She has studied crime policy for 25 years and prisoner reentry for 10 years. ACE!'s Deputy Director, Danielle Rudes, recently contacted Dr. Petersilia to discuss issues related to reentry for ACE!'s March 2012 publication. Dr. Petersilia's full responses are below, as space was limited in the publication.

What are three key issues related to prisoner reentry that need addressing?

  1. What contextual factors contribute to reentry failures? Future research must move beyond simple statistical models that attempt to explain parolees’ success or failure solely as a function of their individual characteristics. My colleagues and I recently conducted research in California and found that the characteristics of the parolee’s supervising agent, the culture of their supervising agency, the political preferences and fiscal health of the community, and the nearby availability of rehabilitation programs, were significant predictors of “recidivism” as well. However, our research was not a true randomized test of how changes in each of these spheres could improve reentry. That is the next step in understanding how these contextual factors contribute to reentry successes and failures.
  2. What are the relative impacts of formal versus informal social control on recidivism? So far, research has shown that formal parole supervision has only a small effect on recidivism. That raises an important question for me: what informal social controls – such as children, parents, work, recreation, and volunteer activities – might impact the course of criminal careers? Which forms of informal social control are most effective over the life course? And critically important, how can the formal social control mechanisms work to leverage and support the informal mechanisms? 
  3. What should we do with low-risk offenders? The risk principle suggests that the most intensive resources (treatment and supervision) should be applied to offenders who are at relatively high risk for recidivism. The question remains: What can be done productively with low-risk offenders. Deterrence theory might suggest if offenders are simply ignored early in their criminal careers, sanctions lose their deterrent value, and criminal careers can escalate. Some offenders who may appear “low risk” on assessment tools that heavily emphasize individual factors may actually be quite likely to recidivate, given a host of contextual variables and barriers to reentry. These lower risk offenders may be exactly the ones helped by job skills training and other vocational risk programs. One could envision a field test of this very real possibility. I understand that we don’t want to formally intervene in the lives of lower risk offenders who might go straight on their own, but I worry greatly about focusing all our treatment resources towards only the high risk.


What is the worst current practice/policy in reentry?

This is an easy one for me to answer: the treatment of the mentally ill. It seems a travesty on so many levels that more Americans receive mental health treatment in prisons and jails than in hospitals or treatment centers. The justice system is simply ill equipped to deal with their needs. It is too uncaring, overburdened, and complicated for persons with mental illness to navigate. The result is that their serious needs (and potential public safety risks) often get ignored and psychotic behavior escalates. In prison, they often misbehave and end up serving most of their prison time in segregation, which can further exacerbate their mental illness. At release, they are supposed to negotiate the complexities of the community, justice, and health care systems.  Many persons with mental illness fall through the cracks and become homeless. Of course, now they have a criminal record and a diagnosed mental illness, and I doubt there is any group more feared or stigmatized. If I had another life to life, I would probably devote it to researching and advocating on behalf of persons with mental illness involved in the criminal justice system.



What is the best current practice/policy in reentry?

I am a big fan of community collaborations, although I also recognize they are the most difficult programs to implement or to transfer between locations. But when they work, they are powerful forces for change. The Boston Reentry Initiative and the Baltimore Reentry Partnership are two good examples. Both projects are interagency collaborations that focus on reducing recidivism for serious offenders. These two partnerships (like dozens others around the country) try to provide mentoring, social service assistance and vocational development provided by community based and governmental agencies. Most also bring family members into the collaboration. Evaluations of these programs are promising.


I am also starting to think more systematically about how best to use inmate-to-inmate mentorship in prison to foster reentry success. Several California programs are exploring this and the initial results are very promising (at least as measured by in-prison improvements). For example, the New York Times recently reported on one such program operating in San Luis Obispo prison in California. Inmates there are being trained by outside public health professionals to help care for prisoners with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. This seems to be a win/win for everyone. Life term prisoners need something productive to do and the State is facing rising costs in caring for elderly prisoners.


Another exciting example is The Offender Mentor Certification Program (OMCP) at California’s Valley State Prison for Women and Solano State Prison for men. This program provides an opportunity for long term inmates to complete a certification program in alcohol and drug counseling. Once certified as interns by the California Association of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor (CAADC), the offender mentors are paid to co-facilitate classes with contracted substance abuse counselors. Additionally, these offender mentors help facilitate substance abuse 12-step programs. As of February, California’s offender mentors have provided over 170,000 hours of substance abuse counseling. Not only does this save the state money, but also it provides the mentors will a marketable skill that they can leverage for gainful employment upon release.



If you were Queen for a Day, what is the one thing about prisoner reentry you'd change? And, what change would you make?


I guess the first thing I would do as Queen for a Day is to immediately reduce the size of the population needing “reentry!” We should never have imposed prison terms on so many low-risk offenders. My rough guess is that about 15% of all prison sentences imposed over the last decade could have been – and should have been – handled with community-based sanctions. And I think the reentry problem is about to get even more severe – both in population and offender needs for services – as prisons downsize and community services decline for both ex-prisoners and the public.


But given that even the Queen can’t change the past, my one change would be to require that all proposed changes in sentencing laws be preceded by an impact statement of the racial, gender, and financial changes that are likely to result. Henry Ruth and Kevin Reitz recommended this prescriptive goal nearly a decade ago, and several states have partially adopted their recommendation.   Of course, sentencing commissions often include such cost/benefit analyses but the racial and gender impacts are not addressed. I think this improved information would make a huge difference in the passage of new laws. Given the current U.S. fiscal crisis, improved information on the costs of additional punishment should lead to less opinion-based policies and more fact-based policies.  I think it would lead to a reduction in unnecessary imprisonment over time.




  • Lin, Jeffrey, Ryken Grattet, and Joan Petersilia, “Back-end sentencing and reimprisonment: individual, organizational, and community predictors of parole sanctioning decisions, Criminology, 48 (3), 2010, pp. 759-796
  • Solomon, Amy, V. Kachnowski, and A. Bhati, “Does parole work? Analyzing the impact of postprison supervision on rearrest outcomes,” Washington DC: Urban Institute, 2005.
  • These research agenda items are described more fully in, “Putting Science to Work: How the Principles of Risk, Need, and Responsivity Apply to Reentry,” by Susan Turner and Joan Petersilia, in Using Social Science to Reduce Violent Offending, edited by Joel A. Dvoskin et al., Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • “Life, With Dementia,” by Pam Belluck, New York Times, February 25, 2012.
  • Henry Ruth and Kevin R. Reitz, The Challenge of Crime: Rethinking Our Response, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2003.
  Contact Information  

Joan Petersilia

Phone: 650-723-4740


George Mason University logo

George Mason University
Criminology, Law and Society

Home | About | Research | Criminology, Law, & Society | Partners | Tools | Products & Publications