Joan Petersilia, 1951-2019

Tributes paid to ‘a committed visionary’ whose research and lobbying helped transform the Californian legal system

October 31, 2019
Joan Petersilia, 1951-2019
Source: Stanford Law School

A legal scholar who proved brilliantly effective at building bridges with policymakers has died.

Joan Petersilia was born into an Air Force family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1951, moved around a great deal during her childhood and eventually ended up in California. She studied sociology at what is now Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles (1972) and went on to an MA in sociology at Ohio State University (1974). She began her career as senior researcher and then director of the criminal justice programme at Rand Corporation but later moved back into the academy, serving as professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California, Irvine (1992-2009).

While Professor Petersilia was based at UC Irvine, her research was noticed by the state governor – Arnold Schwarzenegger – so she was taken on as part of his “strike team” on rehabilitation, advising on reform of prisons and parole. The episode was very typical of a self-styled “applied criminologist” who once said that she had “tried to produce a body of research worthy of policy attention, and then searched for ways to position myself ‘front and centre’ in policy circles”.

Although Professor Petersilia had no formal legal training, she ended her career as Adelbert H. Sweet professor of law at Stanford University (2009-2018) and soon became co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center.

“She was already the nation’s leading expert on sentencing and corrections,” recalled fellow co-director Robert Weisberg, now Edwin E. Huddleson Jr professor of law at Stanford. “She built bridges between the academic world and the day-to-day world of police, prosecutors, parole and probation officers, and prison wardens, and she taught her students to traverse those bridges.”

When a Supreme Court decision forced California to make a sharp reduction in its prison population in 2011, responsibility for certain lesser offences was shifted to the county level. Professor Petersilia played a major role in carrying out the research to ensure that this change would promote rehabilitation rather than recidivism.

Then California attorney general (and now senator and presidential candidate) Kamala Harris described Professor Petersilia as “a committed visionary” who “energised and excited so many people around reforming the criminal justice system before it was even popular”. Her work in criminology was also recognised when she received the Stockholm Prize in Criminology, sometimes regarded as the discipline’s Nobel Prize, in 2014.

Professor Petersilia died of ovarian cancer on 23 September and is survived by her husband Stephen Richard Thomas, two sons, two stepchildren and four stepgrandchildren.

matthew.reisz@timeshighereducation.com

Please login or register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Related universities

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most commented

Sponsored

Featured jobs

Senior Lecturer in Public Humanities

Royal Holloway, University Of London

Lecturer in Human Resource Management

Edinburgh Napier University

Lecturer in Marine Palaeontology

University Of Bristol

Cleaner

St Marys University, Twickenham