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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