UChicago Law School student earns Rhodes Scholarship

Oxford-bound Yali Peng, LLM’17, to pursue doctorate in criminology or socio-legal studies

University of Chicago Law School student Yali Peng, LLM’17, has won a Rhodes Scholarship to study at the University of Oxford next fall. She will pursue a doctorate in either criminology or socio-legal studies and hopes to examine sentencing structures and criminal behavior with a focus on how the system affects people from marginalized communities.

“Namely I hope to answer two questions: What kind of sentencing can better match our retribution and deterrence goals? How we eliminate those factors systematically driving people to be criminals in prison system?” said Peng, who is currently part of UChicago’s JSD program, aimed at international lawyers.

A resident of Guangzhou, China, was among four Rhodes Scholars from China this year. She is the 53rd student from the University of Chicago to receive the award, a group that includes Joshua Pickar, JD’17, who was named a Rhodes scholar in 2016.

Before entering the Law School, Peng earned a bachelor of laws degree from Tsinghua University, where she wrote an award-winning dissertation that examined the factors influencing the sentencing of larceny based on linear regression models. She was an editorial board member of Tsinghua China Law Review and clerked at the Supreme People’s Court of China.

Peng is now in the second year of her JSD program, writing a dissertation that will focus on the extralegal factors influencing Chinese sentencing.

“The Rhodes Scholarship is a tremendous honor, and one that underscores the extraordinary intellectual contributions that our LLM and JSD students make to the Law School community,” said Dean Thomas J. Miles, the Clifton R. Musser Professor of Law and Economics. “Yali’s work shows great promise, and we are delighted to see her recognized in this way.”  

Human stories inspire legal career

Peng said her interest in criminal behavior has grown from observing the human stories behind crimes.

“I know a prostitute who sold her body to pay her daughter’s tuition in a prestigious private school as her husband’s wage is not enough,” Peng said. “I have also seen kids who were left behind [when their parents left] to earn money as migrant workers in big cities. Their grandparents rarely disciplined them, and they finally become local gangsters. I felt each criminal may have his or her own story, and there may be systemic forces driving people to become criminals in such a stratified society.”

Ultimately, Peng said she hopes her work will lead to better treatment and improved opportunities for rehabilitation in criminal justice systems.

“Yali is deeply committed both to the scholarly enterprise and to applying the insights of academic research in making a contribution to improving the lives of ordinary people in societies around the world,” said Dhammika Dharmapala, the Julius Kreeger Professor of Law and one of Peng’s recommenders.

In addition to Dharmapala, Peng said she has received support from Tom Ginsburg, the Leo Spitz Professor of International Law; and Deputy Dean Richard McAdams, the Bernard D. Meltzer Professor of Law and the lead adviser on her JSD work.

McAdams called Peng’s work “highly promising” and praised her contributions in class.

“In my seminar on American policing, it was fascinating to have the comparative perspective of a student from China,” McAdams said. “Yali often made comments about Chinese police that reframed the usual American debates about policing and made us see the issues in a fresh way.”

Peng said her work at the Law School offered her insight on the American criminal justice system.

“I am super grateful to the education I received at UChicago Law, which gave me an insightful understanding of American society,” Peng said. “It is such a great honor that I can join a good community of Rhodes Scholars to find like minds to promote criminal justice.”

—Story first appeared on the University of Chicago Law School website.