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February 15, 2016
Katherine Beckett

Although discretion is an unavoidable and ubiquitous feature of police work, it is also the subject of significant controversy and debate. In this essay, I first provide a brief overview of the history and evolution of police discretion from the 1960s to today and explain how its exercise has been impacted in recent decades by the war on drugs and the adoption of “broken windows policing.” These policy initiatives encouraged a more muscular police response to low-level offending and had important consequences, including the flooding of U.S. prisons and jails and the disproportionate incarceration of people of color. Although many of those targeted in the campaigns against drugs and disorder do not pose a significant threat to public safety, many do contend with multiple challenges such as homelessness, addiction, and mental illness, and, as a result, cycle repeatedly into and out of jail. Incarceration, including short-term jail spells, often has deleterious and destabilizing effects, which increase the likelihood that arrest and incarceration will continue to occur with some regularity.

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