Peter van der Laan studied special education at Leiden University. In 1991, he gained his doctorate for a thesis entitled Experimenteren met alternatieve sancties voor jeugdigen (Experimenting with alternative sanctions for juveniles). For many years, he has carried out research in the area of child protection, juvenile deliquency and (youth) criminal law. From 1981 to 1998, he held various positions at the Research and Documentation Centre (WODC) of the Ministry of Justice and Security. In 1998 and 1999, he was a senior research fellow at the Dartington Social Research Unit in the county of Devon and visiting professor Social Work and Probation at the University of Exeter (UK).
Van der Laan has worked at NSCR since 1999. He combines this with a professorship by special appointment in Probation and Parole at the Faculty of Law, VU Amsterdam. He is also a member of the Social Sciences Council (SWR) of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Council for the Administration of Criminal Justice and Protection of Juveniles (RSJ).