You will develop a paper that addresses the issues below. You are to use the textbook readings, unit lessons, and required unit resources in the unit to complete the assignment. Also, use your personal experience when addressing the issues below.
· Locate and briefly describe a recent police discrimination case in the United States.
· Discuss the meaning of police discretion, why it is necessary, and why it needs to be controlled.
· Identify how implicit bias may affect police discretion.
· Discuss the ways in which discretion may be controlled.
· Discuss the limitations of organizational rules and policies in controlling the discretion of officers.
· Describe the limitations of trying to control police discretion by enhancing the professional judgment of officers.
Your paper should be a minimum of two pages in length, not counting the title or reference pages. Please use APA Style when developing this assignment. In-text citations and references will be required for all sources that are used. Please note that no abstract is needed.
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The Uses and Abuses of Police Discretion:
Toward Harm Reduction Policing
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 po-
lice response to low-level offending and had important consequences, in-
cluding 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 pub-
lic 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 incar-
ceration will continue to occur with some regularity.
In the second half of this essay, I argue that since police discretion
cannot be eradicated, and the destructive nature of mass incarceration is in-
creasingly well-understood, municipalities would be well-advised to imple-
ment alternatives to the war on drugs and broken windows policing. Ideally,
these alternative approaches would encourage the police to respond to “dis-
orderly” behaviors that do not pose a significant public safety problem in
ways that reduce the harm that results from low-level crimes and from crimi-
nal justice involvement itself. To illustrate what such a policy framework
might look like, I describe Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion
(LEAD) Program, which relies on police discretion to channel people sus-
pected of minor forms of criminal wrongdoing out of the criminal justice
system and toward services with the aim of reducing human suffering at
both the individual and community levels. I conclude that programs like
LEAD that use harm reduction principles to guide the exercise of police
discretion enable municipalities to respond to low-level crimes in a way that
alleviates rather than exacerbates individual and community suffering asso-
ciated with those behaviors.
* Katherine Beckett is a Professor in the Law, Societies and Justice Program and Professor
and Clarence and Elissa M. (“Lee”) Schrag Endowed Faculty Fellow in the Department of
Sociology at the University of Washington.
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78 Harvard Law & Policy Review [Vol. 10
I. POLICE DISCRETION: AN OVERVIEW
The inevitability of police discretion was “discovered” by social scien-
tists in the 1960s. Prior to this time, the scholarly literature on policing fo-
cused mainly on administrative issues such as staffing levels and the extent
to which police organizations complied with prescribed policing standards.1
As leading police scholar Egon Bittner later put it, the surveys that were
standard through the 1950s provided little insight regarding “literal” police
work, that is, how police officers actually spent their time, the kinds of situa-
tions they most commonly encountered, and how they responded to those
This window on the nature of police work began to change in the 1960s
as a result of the design and implementation of an observational study by the
American Bar Foundation (ABF) that focused much more on “law in ac-
tion” than on the “law on the books.” The ABF study employed ethno-
graphic methods in three field settings (Kansas, Michigan, and Wisconsin),
and its findings transformed the field of police studies. The results showed
that discretion is not aberrational; rather, criminal justice actors, including
police, exercise it at all levels of criminal justice organizations. Moreover,
the police routinely encounter both non-criminal situations and serious pub-
lic safety problems, both of which require considerable judgment beyond the
application of criminal law. Indeed, police officers were found to consider a
number of factors in addition to probable cause, including departmental
needs and practical implications, when deciding whether to make an arrest.3
Moreover, findings from the ABF study indicated that even well-developed
police guidelines could not anticipate the complexity of the situations of-
ficers often encounter; responding to these multifaceted and varied en-
counters therefore requires that police officers exercise considerable
discretion in the course of their everyday activities.
Although evidence of the ubiquity and importance of discretion in eve-
ryday police practices may seem unsurprising today, these findings opened
up new ways of studying and understanding criminal justice processes gen-
erally and police behavior specifically. As one police scholar put it,
The “discovery” of discretion, beginning in the late 1960s and
gaining momentum over the 1970s, was perhaps the single most
important event in the history of criminal justice studies. It served
to trigger a watershed of descriptive research on all aspects of the
GEORGE L. KELLING, NAT’L INST. OF JUSTICE RESEARCH REPORT, BROKEN WINDOWS
AND POLICE DISCRETION 22 (1999).
EGON BITTNER, ASPECTS OF POLICE WORK 4 (1990).
3 Lloyd E. Ohlin, Surveying Discretion by Criminal Justice Decision-Makers, in DISCRE-
TION IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE: THE TENSION BETWEEN INDIVIDUALIZATION AND UNIFORMITY 1–22
(Lloyd E. Ohlin & Frank J. Remington eds., 1993).
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system and served to stake out law as a subject matter both suita-
ble to, and in need of, social scientific analysis.4
Indeed, contemporary police scholarship places discretion at the heart
of social scientific and legal studies of police work.5 Many such studies ex-
plore whether and how officer and organizational characteristics affect the
exercise of officers’ discretion;6 others seek to identify the situational factors
(such as the race and demeanor of the suspect, location of the stop, and other
contextual factors) that may influence police decision-making.7 Still others
seek primarily to assess how frequently police officers violate constitutional
standards, and why they do so.8 Whereas quantitative studies typically seek
to identify the situational, individual, and organizational factors that have a
statistically significant impact on policing outcomes, qualitative studies at-
tempt to understand how officers interpret the situations they encounter and
describe the thought-processes that shape officers’ responses to those
In addition to exploring the nature and consequences of police discre-
tion, police scholars have also debated whether and how police discretion
might be effectively regulated to reduce the influence of illegitimate consid-
erations such as suspect-race on police behavior.9 Researchers have also ex-
plored how police officers and organizations should be held accountable
when problems such as excessive use of force and biased policing exist.
Some such scholars emphasize the limited capacity of regulators to antici-
pate the complexity of the situations officers will encounter, and argue for a
more carrot-oriented approach to police regulation that draws on officers’
expertise and experience to develop flexible guidelines.10 Others emphasize
the need to develop robust and independent accountability systems in order
to ensure that officers who engage in such practices are identified and sanc-
tioned. In this approach, the hope is that such systems will not only enable
detection of police officers who engage in systematic wrong-doing, but by
eradicating such behavior, will also reform police culture over time.11
Unfortunately, many researchers have concluded that existing studies
shed little light on how police organizations might effectively control police
4 Ernest L. Nickels, A Note on the Status of Discretion in Police Research, 35 J. CRIM.
JUST. 570, 570 (2007).
5 See, e.g., BITTNER, supra note 2; SAM WALKER, TAMING THE SYSTEM: THE CONTROL OF
DISCRETION IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE, 1950–1990 (1993); WILLIAM A. WESTLEY, VIOLENCE AND
THE POLICE: A SOCIOLOGICAL STUDY OF LAW, CUSTOM AND MORALITY (1970).
6 See, e.g., Jeffrey S. Nowacki, Organizational-Level Police Discretion: An Application
for Police Use of Lethal Force, 61 CRIME & DELINQ. 643 (2011).
7 See, e.g., Jeffrey Fagan & Amanda Geller, Following the Script: Narratives of Suspicion
in Terry Stops in Street Policing, 82 U. CHI. L. REV. 51 (2015); Tammy Rinehart Kochel,
David B. Wilson & Stephen D. Mastrofski, Effect of Suspect Race on Officers’ Arrest Deci-
sions, 49 CRIMINOLOGY 473 (2011).
8 See, e.g., Jon B. Gould & Stephen D. Mastrofski, Suspect Searches: Assessing Police
Behavior Under the U.S. Constitution, 3 CRIMINOLOGY & PUB. POL’Y 315 (2004).
9 See, e.g., WALKER, supra note 5.
10 See, e.g., KELLING, supra note 1, at 33–45.
11 See Walker, supra note 5.
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80 Harvard Law & Policy Review [Vol. 10
discretion.12 Despite this lack of scientific consensus about how problematic
exercises of police discretion such as racial profiling are best deterred, recent
years have witnessed two major policy efforts to steer police discretion in
particular ways. The first of these was the federal war on drugs, which ema-
nated from national-level politicians but included a number of incentives
aimed at encouraging state and local police departments to place greater em-
phasis on drug law enforcement and to employ proactive methods to identify
and arrest drug law violators. Similarly, advocates of “broken windows po-
licing” successfully urged police departments to encourage officers to react
strongly to low-level (potentially) criminal behaviors such as panhandling or
lying on sidewalks. Below, I briefly describe how these policy initiatives
shaped the exercise of police discretion in recent years and describe the con-
sequences of these shifts. I then advocate the adoption of an alternative pol-
icy framework that seeks to redress the human suffering that underlies most
low-level criminal behavior, and to steer the homeless, drug users and sell-
ers, sex workers, and others who spend their time on the streets toward ser-
vices and away from the criminal justice system.
II. POLICY EFFORTS TO SHAPE POLICE DISCRETION:
TWO RECENT EXAMPLES
A. The War on Drugs
Because anti-crime efforts are largely a state and local affair, national
politicians who campaign on their anti-crime credentials often turn their at-
tention to drugs (over which the federal government has comparatively great
authority) once in office.13 This was certainly true for the Reagan Adminis-
tration, which assumed office in 1981 and quickly advocated increased fed-
eral involvement in the war against drugs.14 But the fight against drugs also
involves state and local authorities to a significant degree. Recognition of
this led crime fighters in the 1980s and 1990s to use legislation to encourage
police departments around the country to target drug law violators. The 1984
Omnibus Crime Bill, for example, authorized police departments to confis-
cate any assets—including cars, boats, houses, and bank accounts—they be-
lieved were acquired with drug monies, regardless of whether their (former)
owners were ever convicted of, or even charged with, a drug crime.15 A few
years later, Congress revised the program through which the federal govern-
ment provides grants to state and local law enforcement agencies, renaming
12 See NAT’L RESEARCH COUNCIL, COMM. TO REVIEW RESEARCH ON POLICE POLICY AND
PRACTICES, FAIRNESS AND EFFECTIVENESS IN POLICING: THE EVIDENCE (Wesley Skogan &
Kathleen Frydl eds., 2004); Stephen D. Mastrofski, Controlling Street Level Police Discretion,
593 ANNALS AM. ACAD. POL. & SOC. SCI. 100 (2004).
13 See KATHERINE BECKETT & THEODORE SASSON, THE POLITICS OF INJUSTICE: CRIME
AND PUNISHMENT IN AMERICA 56–61 (2004).
14 Id. at 60.
15 Id. at 162.
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2016] Toward Harm Reduction Policing 81
it the Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance Pro-
gram. This program was specifically designed to incentivize local law en-
forcement agencies to develop and expand the narcotics task forces that have
served as the foot soldiers in the war on drugs.16 Over the years, the federal
government also offered other important forms of support to local drug war-
riors, including resources, equipment, and training.17
The federal government’s effort to encourage drug law enforcement was
remarkably successful, and had important and measurable consequences.
Specifically, the number of drug arrests occuring in the United States nearly
quadrupled, from just over a half of a million in 1981 to a peak of nearly 1.9
million in 2006.18 This development most significantly affected people and
communities of color. Between 1980 and 2000, for example, the national
black drug arrest rate increased from roughly 6.5 to 29.1 (per 1,000 persons),
while the white drug arrest rate increased much more modestly, from ap-
proximately 3.5 to 4.6 (per 1,000 persons).19 Since 2006, the number of drug
arrests taking place each year has dropped modestly, from 1.9 million in
2006 to roughly 1.5 million in 2012.20 While this change represents a decline
from the height of the drug war, it also signifies an enduring commitment to
channeling significant local police resources toward drug law enforcement.
At first glance, the tenacity of the local commitment to drug law en-
forcement is surprising, as the war on drugs has become increasingly contro-
versial and many states have enacted legislative reforms aimed at reducing
the number of drug offenders sent to prisons and jails.21 Ongoing federal
support and incentives for drug law enforcement may help to explain why so
many police departments continue to wage war on drugs despite the growing
bi-partisan consensus that the drug war has been a failure.22 Interestingly,
though, another recent and controversial effort to channel police discretion
has thrived even in the absence of such strong federal support: the call for
broken windows policing.
16 See MICHELLE ALEXANDER, THE NEW JIM CROW: MASS INCARCERATION IN THE AGE OF
COLORBLINDNESS 73 (2010).
17 Id. at 73–74.
BUREAU OF JUSTICE STATISTICS, DRUG AND CRIME FACTS (2015), http://www.bjs.gov/
THE REAL WAR ON CRIME: THE REPORT OF THE NAT’L CRIMINAL JUSTICE COMM’N
(Steven R. Donziger, ed., 1996).
FED. BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION, CRIME IN THE UNITED STATES (2013), https://www.fbi
21 See RAM SUBRAMANIAN & REBECKA MORENO, VERA INST. OF JUSTICE, CENTER ON
SENTENCING AND CORRECTIONS, DRUG WAR DÉTENTE: A REVIEW OF STATE-LEVEL DRUG LAW
REFORM, 2009–2013 5 (2014), http://www.vera.org/sites/default/files/resources/downloads/
22 See, e.g., David Dagan & Steven M. Telles, Locked In? Conservative Reform and the
Future of Mass Incarceration, 651 ANNALS AM. ACAD. POL. & SOC. SCI. 266, 273–74 (2014);
Joan Petersilia & Francis T. Cullen, Liberal but not Stupid: Meeting the Promise of Downsiz-
ing Prisons, 2 STAN. J. CRIM. L. & POL’Y 733 (2015).
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82 Harvard Law & Policy Review [Vol. 10
B. Broken Windows Policing
The debate over broken windows policing has been simmering for de-
cades, and was renewed again in the aftermath of the NYPD shooting of Eric
Garner during his 2014 arrest for selling loose cigarettes. Broken windows
policing was first articulated by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in a
short Atlantic Monthly article in 1982,23 and became wildly popular in U.S.
urban police departments in the intervening years.24 Proponents argue that
neighborhoods that fail to fix broken windows or address other manifesta-
tions of “disorder” display a lack of informal social control, thus inviting
serious criminals into the neighborhood.25 Advocates of broken windows po-
licing therefore call for a fundamental reorientation of policing, one that of-
fers city governments a broad and flexible means of regulating public spaces
and removing those deemed “disorderly” from contested public spaces,
often through arrest. Although the name of the theory calls attention to the
built environment, it focuses in practice primarily on unwanted human be-
havior—particularly that which is engaged in by “disreputable or obstreper-
ous or unpredictable people: panhandlers, drunks, addicts, rowdy teenagers,
prostitutes, loiterers, the mentally disturbed.”26 Problematic behaviors exhib-
ited by these groups are seen not as a manifestation of poverty or other
social ills, but rather as a sign of “disorder,” a cause of diminished quality
of life for other urban residents, and as a precursor of serious crime. Where
departments have embraced broken windows policing, police department of-
ficials encourage officers to consider potentially misdemeanor offenses such
as public drunkenness and panhandling as very serious matters. Unsurpris-
ingly, this focus has also contributed to racial disproportionality in jail popu-
lations, as well as fueling the incarceration of the homeless and mentally
23 James Q. Wilson & George F. Kelling, The Police and Neighborhood Safety, ATLANTIC
MONTHLY, Mar. 1982, at 29.
24 See STEVE HERBERT, CITIZENS, COPS AND POWER: RECOGNIZING THE LIMITS TO COM-
25 See Wilson & Kelling, supra note 23.
26 Id. at 32.
KATHERINE BECKETT & STEVEN HERBERT, BANISHED: THE NEW SOCIAL CONTROL IN
URBAN AMERICA 32–35 (2009). George Kelling recently argued that “broken windows was
never intended to be a high-arrest program. Although it has been practiced as such in many
cities, neither Wilson nor I ever conceived of it in those terms.” George Kelling, Don’t Blame
My ‘Broken Windows’ Theory for Poor Policing, POLITICO (Aug. 21, 2015), http://www.polit-
121268.html [http://perma.cc/DS8M-EPYW]. However, as Bernard Harcourt contends, this
argument is specious, as Kelling and other advocates of broken windows policing often use
their position as consultants to urge local governments to expand the police authority to arrest
through statutory reform, and because “George Kelling himself measures broken-windows
policing by the number of misdemeanor arrests performed by the police.” Bernard E. Har-
court, Broken-Windows Policing is a High Arrest Problem, THE HUFFINGTON POST (Aug. 17,
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2016] Toward Harm Reduction Policing 83
Despite numerous empirical studies challenging the efficacy of broken
windows policing,28 the theory of crime that underpins broken windows po-
licing has achieved the status of common sense in police departments across
the United States29 and in many other countries as well.30 The reasons for its
widespread popularity are somewhat unclear, but may have to do with the
congruence of broken windows policing with the “tough” anti-crime
zeitgeist that prevailed in the late twentieth century, as well as the affinity
between the assumptions and effects of broken windows policing with the
social dynamics associated with neoliberalism.31
In addition, advocates of broken windows policing actively promoted
its adoption and implementation across the globe through their connections
to, and involvement in, consulting firms.32 Several of the most prominent of
these firms—including Giuliani Partners and The Bratton Group L.L.C.—
have aggressively promoted the “New York model” for decades. For exam-
ple, after being declared America’s “top cop” by Time Magazine in 1996,
New York Police Chief Bratton stepped down from public office and formed
his own private consulting company, The Bratton Group, L.L.C. This con-
sulting group worked for departments throughout the United States and ex-
tensively in South America, where it has advised officials on both crime
policy and urged the adoption of broken windows policing.33 Similarly, upon
retiring from the mayor’s office, Rudy Giuliani formed Giuliani Partners, a
consulting organization staffed by many of his top aides from City Hall and
former police commissioner Bernard Kerik, which actively promoted the
broken windows philosophy.34 Media stories linking the crime drop in New
York City and the adoption by the NYPD of a particularly aggressive version
of broken windows policing appear to have generated substantial interna-
tional interest in securing the advice of these and other consulting firms.35
In sum, recent decades have witnessed the emergence of (at least) two
pronounced efforts to shift police organizations’ focus toward what were for-
28 See John E. Eck & Edward R. Maguire, Have Changes in Policing Reduced Violent
Crime? An Assessment of the Evidence, in THE CRIME DROP IN AMERICA, 224–28 (Alfred
Blumstein & Joel Wallman eds., 2000); David Greenberg, Studying New York City’s Crime
Decline: Methodological Issues, 31 JUST. Q. 15 (2014); Bernard E. Harcourt & Jens Ludwig,
Broken Windows Policing: New Evidence from New York City and a Five-City Social Experi-
ment, 73 U. CHI. L. REV. 271, 282–87 (2006); Robert J. Sampson & Stephen W. Raudenbush,
Systematic Social Observation of Public Spaces: A New Look at Disorder in Urban Neighbor-
hoods, 105 AM. J. SOC. 603, 626–36 (1999).
29 Steve Herbert & Elizabeth Brown, Conceptions of Space and Crime in the Punitive
Neoliberal City, 38 ANTIPODE 755, 759 (2006).
30 See Neil Smith, Global Social Cleansing: Postliberal Revanchism and the Export of
Zero Tolerance, 28 SOC. JUST. 68, 70 (2001); Loic Wacquent, Toward a Dictatorship Over the
Poor? Notes on the Penalization of Poverty in Brazil, 5 PUNISHMENT & SOC’Y 197, 198 (2003).
31 Herbert & Brown, supra note 29, at 758–61.
32 Katharyne Mitchell & Katherine Beckett, Securing the Global City: Crime, Consulting,
Risk, and Ratings in the Production of Urban Space, 15 GLOBAL LEGAL STUD. 75, 76–80
33 See Marc Lifsher, If He Can Fight Crime There, He’ll Fight It . . . Anywhere, WALL ST.
J., Mar. 8, 2001, at A18.
34 Mitchell & Beckett, supra note 32, at 96.
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84 Harvard Law & Policy Review [Vol. 10
merly considered relatively unimportant issues and to encourage a more ag-
gressive response to them. The result has been a sharp increase in the arrest
and incarceration of drug law violators and misdemeanants generally. And
as is now well-known, both of these developments, especially the war on
drugs, contributed importantly to the development of mass incarceration and
to pronounced racial disparities throughout the criminal justice system.36
As a result of these and other policy developments, the U.S. penal sys-
tem has expanded to unprecedented proportions. The U.S. incarceration rate
is the highest in the world, and is five to fifteen times higher than those
found in Nordic and Western European countries.37 The massive expansion
of the penal system has had important consequences with which scholars
increasingly grapple. For example, mass incarceration has unparalleled dem-
ographic reach and implications, fundamentally altering the institutions with
which key segments of the population come into contact over their life
course.38 Moreover, the expansion of penal institutions and populations has
had profound implications for our understanding of social inequality. As
punishment scholar Bruce Western puts it, “the penal system has emerged as
a novel institution in a uniquely American system of social inequality.”39
Indeed, the growth of the criminal justice system has been so conse-
quential that the study of punishment, urban poverty and social inequality
are increasingly treated as over-lapping rather than distinct areas of in-
quiry.40 Research in these areas indicates that the U.S. penal system is impli-
cated in the accumulation of disadvantage and the reproduction of inequality
for a number of reasons: the growing number of (mainly poor) people whose
36 See ALEXANDER, supra note 16. For the argument that Alexander and other “New Jim
Crow” scholars have overstated the extent to which the war on drugs accounts for mass incar-
ceration, see James Forman, Racial Critiques of Mass Incarceration: Beyond the New Jim
Crow, 87 N.Y.U. L. REV. 101 (2012). Forman correctly observes that policies pertaining to
more serious crime, especially violent crime, have contributed even more significantly to mass
incarceration than has the war on drugs.
37 See Tapio Lappi-Seppälä, Why Some Countries Cope With Lesser Use of Imprisonment?
Explaining Differences and Pondering the Remedies, CRIMINAL JUSTICE ALLIANCE (Mar.
38 See Becky Pettit & Bruce Western, Mass Imprisonment and the Life Course: Race and
Class Inequality in U.S. Incarceration, 69 AM. SOC. REV. 151, 164–66 (2004); Christopher
Uggen, Jeff Manza & Melissa Thompson, Citizenship, Democracy, and the Civic Reintegra-
tion of Criminal Offenders, 605 ANNALS AM. ACAD. POL. & SOC. SCI. 281, 296–304 (2006).
BRUCE WESTERN, PUNISHMENT AND INEQUALITY IN AMERICA 8 (2006).
40 Id.; see also Megan Comfort, Punishment Beyond the Legal Offender, 3 ANN. REV. L.
SOC. SCI. 271, 289 (2007); Holly Foster & John Hagan, Incarceration and Intergenerational
Social Exclusion, 54 SOC. PROBLEMS 399 (2007); John Hagan & Ronit Dinovitzer, Collateral
Consequences of Imprisonment for Children, Communities and Prisoners, 26 CRIME & JUST.
121 (1999); Alexes Harris, Heather Evans & Katherine Beckett, Drawing Blood from Stones:
Monetary Sanctions, Punishment and Inequality in the Contemporary United States, 115 AM.
J. SOC. 1753 (2010); Michael Massoglia & Jason Schnittker, No Real Release: The Health
Effects of Incarceration, 14 CONTEXTS 38 (2009); Sara McLanahan, Fragile Families and the
Reproduction of Poverty, 621 ANNALS AM. ACAD. POL. & SOC. SCI. 111 (2009); Becky Pettit
& Bruce Western, supra note 38; JEREMY TRAVIS, ELIZABETH CINCOTTA & AMY SOLOMON,
URBAN INST., JUSTICE POLICY CTR., FAMILIES LEFT BEHIND: THE HIDDEN COSTS OF INCARCER-
ATION AND REENTRY (2005).
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2016] Toward Harm Reduction Policing 85
lives it touches; the negative impact of criminal convictions on employment
and earnings; the adverse effects of confinement on inmates’ mental and
physical health; incarceration’s destabilizing effects on families, children,
and urban communities; and the widespread imposition of “collateral” or
“invisible” sanctions, including the imposition of legal debt, many of which
transform punishment from a temporally limited experience to a long-term
In summary, mass incarceration is in part the result of policy-guided
efforts to encourage a stronger and more arrest-oriented police response to
behaviors and situations that, while potentially illegal, generally do not pose
a significant public safety threat. The enactment of these policies notably
enhanced levels of criminal justice involvement, thus fueling the imposition
of significant harm, particularly on poor urban communities of color. More-
over, these policies do not appear to be responsible for recent notable reduc-
tions in crime. In this context, the harm reduction philosophy offers some
ideas about how policy might be re-directed toward the goal of minimizing
the harm associated with both crime and criminal justice involvement.
III. TOWARD HARM REDUCTION POLICING
The harm reduction philosophy rests on the assumption that some peo-
ple will always engage in behaviors, such as drug use, that are stigmatized
and risky. Although efforts to reduce these behaviors are appropriate, it is
important to recognize that no society has ever eradicated all unwanted be-
haviors. For this reason, “abstinence cannot be the only goal of drug policy
or of [treatment providers].”42 More generally, social policy aimed at les-
sening the negative consequences of risky behaviors may reduce human suf-
fering more than policies aimed at eradicating such behaviors altogether.
Harm reduction practitioners …