The Meaning of Discretion in the Criminal Justice Sciences: A Conceptual Examination in the Case of Police Research and Theory

Ernest Nickels, Indiana University

"For both normative and empirical ventures in the criminal justice sciences alike, "discretion" holds an undisputed place in the conceptual inventory of terms through which we attempt to understand a great many subjects of inquiry - e.g., as a feature of the work carried out by some class of actors identified within some particular institution or across institutions, as an aspect of the institutions themselves, or even an attribute assigned the systems as a whole. That discretion is, and is a matter of considerable import to both the realms of scholarship and policy, goes without question. It is perhaps curious, therefore, the apparent lack of development and clarification of what discretion is. This paper takes focus on the history, development, and current state of "discretion" in the field of police research/theory specifically, in light of the interdisciplinary history of the field, in order to suggest general themes of problematic definitional formulations and related theoretical/methodological implications for the use of the term as employed here and elsewhere in the field of criminal justice. Suggestions on rethinking the term are offered, considering as well issues of measurement, with potential limitations discussed."

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Updated 05/20/2006