The Stanford Prison Experiment

Philip G. Zimbardo, 1971

On a quiet Sunday morning in August, a Palo Alto, California, police car swept through the town picking up college students as part of a mass arrest for violation of Penal Codes 211, Armed Robbery, and Burglary, a 459 PC. The suspect was picked up at his home, charged, warned of his legal rights, spread-eagled against the police car, searched, and handcuffed — often as surprised and curious neighbors looked on.

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Challenging Just Deserts: Punishing White-Collar Criminals

John BraithwaiteJournal of Criminal Law and Criminology, v73-2, Summer 1982

In the wake of growing disillusionment as to the efficacy of deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation, the last decade has seen a resurgence of “just deserts” as the rationale for punishing criminals. They should be punished because they deserve to be punished. The quantum of their suffering should be in proportion to the seriousness of their crime, not according to any assessment of whether they are rehabilitated or when they no longer pose a threat to the community.

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California Prison Downsizing and Its Impact on Local Criminal Justice Systems

Joan Petersilia8 Harvard Law & Policy Review, June 30, 2014

California has embarked on a prison downsizing experiment of historical significance. Facing a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Plata, which ordered the state to reduce its prison population by 25% within two years, Governor Jerry Brown signed the Public Safety Realignment Ace (AB 109). Realignment transferred authority for large numbers of convicted felons from the state prison and parole system to the state’s fifty-eight counties.

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Liberal But Not Stupid: Meeting the Promise of Downsizing Prisons

Joan Petersilia & Francis T. Cullen2 Stanford Journal of Criminal Law and Policy, June 23, 2014

A confluence of factors — a perfect storm — interfered with the intractable rise of imprisonment and contributed to the emergence of a new sensibility defining continued mass imprisonment as non-sustainable. In this context, reducing America’s prisons has materialized as a viable possibility. For progressives who have long called for restraint in the use of incarceration, the challenge is whether the promise of downsizing can be met. The failure of past reforms aimed at decarceration stand as a sobering reminder that good intentions do not easily translate into good results. Further, a number of other reasons exist for why meaningful downsizing might well fail (e.g., the enormous scale of imprisonment that must be confronted, limited mechanisms available to release inmates, lack of quality alternative programs). Still, reasons also exist for optimism, the most important of which is the waning legitimacy of the paradigm of mass incarceration, which has produced efforts to lower inmate populations and close institutions in various states. The issue of downsizing will also remain at the forefront of correctional discourse because of the court-ordered reduction in imprisonment in California. This experiment is ongoing, but is revealing the difficulty of downsizing; the initiative appears to be producing mixed results (e.g., reductions in the state’s prison population but increased in local jail populations). In the end, successful downsizing must be “liberal but not stupid.” Thus, reform efforts must be guided not only by progressive values but also by a clear reliance on scientific knowledge about corrections and on a willingness to address the pragmatic issues that can thwart good intentions. Ultimately, a “criminology of downsizing” must be developed to foster effective policy interventions.

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The Dangers of Pyrrhic Victories Against Mass Incarceration

Joan Petersilia and Robert Weisberg130 Daedelus 124, August 19, 2010

The term “mass incarceration” merits careful scrutiny. It is a dramatic term, spurring political and academic demands that the United States take account of, and seek to reverse, its decades-long commitment to increased imprisonment. The term is justifiably dramatic in two senses. First, the American use of incarceration is, comparatively, an international anomaly and embarrassment. Second, the magnitude of the secondary effects of incarceration in the United States has been so great as to constitute a structural change in our social, economic, and familial life.

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Influencing Public Policy: An Embedded Criminologist Reflects on California Prison Reform

Joan Petersilia, 4 Journal of Experimental Criminology 335, December 1, 2008

Criminologists bemoan their lack of influence on U.S. crime policy, believing that the justice system would be improved if their research findings were more central in decision making. I had an opportunity to test that notion as I participated in California’s historic attempt to reform its prisons over the past 4 years. I became an embedded criminologist, where I was able to observe and contribute to the inner workings of state government. This article reports on my accomplishments with respect to fostering research activities and shifting the department’s focus towards prisoner reintegration. It discusses some of the lessons I learned, including the personal toll that such work entails, the importance of the timing of policy initiatives, and the power of rigorous methodology and clear communication. I conclude by recommending that other policy-oriented criminologists seek out similar experiences, as I believe our academic skills are uniquely suited and ultimately necessary to create a justice system that does less harm.

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