The Fear of Purpose

Many of us spend much of our lives searching for a purpose to the lives that we lead. For some, the purpose is found in the small things; walks by our favorite pond, the cat that always meows outside the window as dinner is prepared, the smell of coffee steeping as we step outside of the shower. For some, purpose must be found in temporal usefulness; the work we do Monday through Friday, volunteering to clean up around our communities, donating time to a local soup kitchen. For others, purpose is found outside of our daily lives; worshipping God, attending our local church, taking solace in the beauty of His creation. The purpose that we all find can be quite different from the purpose that the person sitting next to us has found, or it can be almost the same exact thing.

Within all of the different meanings that we use to get out of bed in the morning, is the prerequisite – the search for it. I will not burden the reader with a description of this search, as there are so many writers who have provided so many beautiful and moving depictions of it and I do not want to sully their works with a mediocre depiction of my own. No, it is not the search that I wish to talk about, but the abandonment of what the search has given.

Many people reading this will remember as a child or a young adult, or even into their full adulthood, being plagued with a fear that they will never know what the meaning of life; never know what their purpose should be. For most of us (although, I would argue that the number has decreased in these modern times full of distraction and noise), we find that meaning. It may be a slow percolation that leads to a gradual realization, or there may be a person or event that rocks meaning and purpose into our lives, a meaning and purpose that may be rather different than what was once expected.

The search may continue for many years, and the findings that it turns up may change over time, leading to a morphing of meaning; the birth of a child, the loss of a spouse, the ending of a relationship. In all of these is the distinct possibility that one may not like the meaning that their search has turned up, and this dislike may undoubtedly turn into a fear.

The young man who always seems like he goes wherever the wind blows finds that his meaningful moments are in the routinization of his daily life, in the things that repeat over and over. A young woman, intent on shedding the manacles of an oppressive society finds that her meaningful moments are when she provides love and care to those who cannot provide it to themselves. I speak of these because they are close to my heart, but the scenarios are manifold, far beyond my limited personal experience to delve into.

Many are faced with the finding that purpose is to be found in their lives in a manner different from what they had hoped, pointing them towards a different life than they had imagined living. For some, however, this difference between truth and hope resolves itself in fear and avoidance; seeking meaning and purpose in areas that they know are wrong. Fear of a purpose leading them to a life of challenge and outside of a life of comfort lends itself to a life of avoidance, a life of superficiality and emptiness.

Face the fear and welcome the challenges that your search has delivered unto you. Pick up your cross, embrace the purpose that the Lord has set out for you.

Discretion in the Criminal Justice System

Why Is Discretion So Pervasive?

            Within the criminal justice system, street level bureaucrats possess a high amount of discretion. Street level bureaucrats are defined as: public service workers who interact directly with citizens in the course of their jobs and who have substantial discretion in the execution of their work (Lipskey, 1980). Discretion, for the purposes of its connotations with street level bureaucrats, can be conceptualized as the influence that these street level bureaucrats have over the “dispensation of benefits or the allocations of public sanctions” (Lipskey, 1980). While much of the discretion employed within the criminal justice system is at the hands of street level bureaucrats, which will be discussed below, it is certainly not the only area of the system in which one can witness its prolific use. It is prevalent within the courts, corrections, diversionary programs such as mental health organizations and jobs programs, the judiciary and beyond.

            There are many reasons behind the pervasiveness of discretion in the United States criminal justice system. Perhaps the easiest to understand and most apparent reason is the inherently diffuse nature of the criminal justice system. This is highlighted in the work of Prottas (1978). One way to conceptualize this diffuse nature is within the challenge of supervision. For individuals within the criminal justice system who are often outside of a traditional office, such as police or mental health case workers, supervision on a regular basis is next to impossible. Being autonomous in these situations and away from immediate access to supervision creates an inherent and often immediate need for discretion to be employed by these workers.

            Another reason that the American criminal justice system finds itself so pervaded with discretion is due to the contingent nature of the issues that those within the system often find themselves in. Again, we can look to Prottas (1978) for illumination here. He states that, due to the ‘boundary spanning’ jobs that street level bureaucrats within the criminal justice system hold, there are constantly shifting expectations, environments, and clientele that these individuals must interact with and manage. Contingencies, shifting expectations and changing environments are all challenging interactions that are often unable to be properly attended to if one was to rely completely on institutional mandates and official rules. In these situations, discretion often provides the best outcome both for the individuals on the receiving end of the discretion, as well as the individual dispensing it.

            Another reason that discretion finds itself so intractable within the American criminal justice system is due to the increasing interconnected nature of the American criminal justice system and mental health treatment; in many ways, jails have become the de-facto mental health system for many Americans (Johnson, 1984; Snow & Briar, 1990; Palermo et al., 1992). With the shift of jails into mental health providers, one of the (multitudinous) collateral consequences is the nature of policing in response to mentally ill individuals. Teplin (2000) discusses this, explicating on the discretionary role that police have in whether to hospitalize, arrest or otherwise deal with mentally ill individuals that they encounter. In this article, she discusses the decisions that the officers need to make, which often comes down to whether to focus on the protection of the safety and welfare of he public, and what she terms parens patriae, which is protection for disabled citizens, such as those who are mentally ill. With the ever-increasing conversations centered on homeless encampments in large cities, with mental illness and addiction being rampant in these areas, discretion becomes a necessity when officers are confronted with situations such as these. Certain situations, such as someone struggling on a -10-degree night or an actively psychotic individual ranting at a children’s park are hopefully going to require very different responses from the officers handling the situation, with discretion being a central factor. The discretion that an officer employs when confronted with a mentally ill individual is a perfect encapsulation of the boundary spanning that is discussed in Prottas (1978). Officers may often need to interact with mentally ill individuals as patients before they need to interact with them as clients in the sense of becoming involved in the criminal justice system – when encountering these situations, is it best to move these individuals into the care of a hospital, or a jail?

Should Discretionary Power Within the Criminal Justice System be Restricted?

            There is no single answer to this question, nor is there a correct one. Discretionary power within the criminal justice system can be a rather powerful force for good. This sentiment is put forth by Arthur Rosett (1972). To begin this piece, Rosett quotes:

If every policeman, every prosecutor, every court, and every post-sentence agency performed his or its responsibility in strict accordance with rules of law, precisely and narrowly laid down, the criminal law would be ordered but intolerable.

With this sentiment summed so nicely, one can use their own deductive powers to see the veracity of the statement. Should we punish all thefts the same? This is easy enough to see – simply look to Les Misérables (Hugo, 1908) for the titular example. Theft is an easy enough example for us to use; the classic example of a single mother, currently unemployed, stealing diapers and bread in order to care for her children is rather different than petty theft by a college student, from the same store (and even, perhaps, of the same items, given the pettiness), for no reason other than that they wanted to. Discretion here is paramount. Punishment for these two crimes, even though they are the same crime and centered on the same items and at the same store, must be of a different nature for the two criminals, given the circumstances of the crimes. If discretion here was restricted to the utmost possible level, these two individuals would receive the same punishment, although the outcomes of these same punishments would vary wildly. In this image, we see the perfect image of why discretion is necessary.

            At the same time, just as I alluded to above, there is no single, correct answer to this question. The titular example of why discretion is necessary would, to me at least, seem to be Jean Valjean, and his theft of a loaf of bread (Hugo, 1908). While I do not have quite as beautiful an image for the necessity of the restriction of discretion, many still abound. Here, let us look to Bowers (1983). In this piece, Bowers discusses ‘arbitrariness’ and how it expanded following a Supreme Court decision centered on capital punishment. In Bowers’ 1983 article, he provides a different picture of discretion. Depending on the individual that discretion affects, and the manner in which it affects them, discretion can seem less like discretion, and more like an arbitrary decision that is not rooted in anything but whim. Bowers goes on to discuss how some persons are sentenced to death while others, having committed essentially the same crime, are not, and that this difference stems from discretion that is likely influenced by ‘extralegal’ influences such as ‘race, class, and origin.’ When discretion is used in this manner, when people receive a sentence of death while another does not and that difference stems from something like race class or origin, this is readily apparent as unacceptable. While capital punishment is quite a step separate from punishments handed out for theft of a loaf of bread, that these two examples help to illuminate how discretion can be used in a way that improves society, as well as acts as a detriment.

            To answer the question, instead of continuing to dance around it, I believe that discretion needs to be restricted with discretion. I believe that restriction of discretion is necessary and would reduce the aforementioned perception of discretion bleeding into arbitrariness; I qualify this because there the restrictions that would improve the system would be conditional and limited. As discussed in the first section, when an officer is on the street, I cannot imagine a solution to a restriction of their discretion that would be even remotely cost effective, ethical, or practical. It would simply be impossible.

            In another context, say that of a courtroom, some of these issues preventing a curbing of discretion would be immediately pushed aside, as they are no longer a concern; specifically, cost effectiveness and practicality. By removing the diffuse nature of the street level criminal justice worker, the main barrier remaining to a reduction in discretion is that of ethicality. Reduction of discretion in these situations may sometimes be beneficial and may sometimes be negative. Again, we refer to our earlier example of a thief of bread and diapers. Should the court punish each individual equally? Or should situation be accounted for? Here, I believe discretion is still to be valued and employed. The discretion limit as to the reduction of inappropriate discretion comes for more serious crimes. For crimes such as rape, murder, sexual assault, arson and the like, I do not believe that discretion is appropriate. Punitiveness is not something that I believe in as a generality, but when something so heinous as rape is committed, the room for discretion flies out the window.

            To sum, I believe that discretion is a necessity in most areas of the criminal justice system: the street, the jails and prisons, the courtrooms and beyond. In many ways, discretion cannot be restricted due to the excessively diffuse nature of the criminal justice system in America, and even when it can be restricted, it very often should not be. Discretionary restriction is to be employed when a certain threshold has been crossed; there are limits to when individuals should be allowed discretion, to when situation and circumstance have any right to be considered.

            While I do truly believe that restriction of discretion in areas such as murder, rape, arson, and other violent crimes, I also want to take a moment to recognize how, in certain areas of the criminal justice system such as the courts, this may seem eerily akin to such policies as ‘three strikes.’ Instances like this, where discretion is wholly removed, generally end up causing far more harm than good, with public safety not being meaningfully improved. This is why I use the word restriction of discretion, not removal. Even in heinous cases, there needs to be perhaps not room for discretion and leniency, but at least the possibility that it could be used, if absolutely necessary. I recognize that all of this simply qualifies my statements, showing that there is always an exception to the rule. In the criminal justice system, where rules are so often touted, these exceptions are often of significant importance, and even if restricted, should never be wholly removed.


Bowers, W. J. (1983). The pervasiveness of arbitrariness and discrimination under post-Furman capital statutes. J. Crim. L. & Criminology, 74, 1067.

Hugo, V., & Buffum, D. L. (1908). Les Misérables. New York, Henry Holt and Co.

Johnson, J. (1984). Removing the chronically mentally ill from jail. Washington, DC: National Coalition for Jail Reform.

Lipskey, M. (1980). Street-level bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the individual in public services. New York: Russel Sage.

Palermo, G. B., Gumz, E. J., & Liska, F. J. (1992). Mental illness and criminal behavior revisited. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 36(1), 53-61.

Prottas, J. (1978). The power of the street-level bureaucrat in public service bureaucracies. Urban Affairs Quarterly, 13(3), 285-312.

Rosett, A. (1972). Discretion, Severity and Legality in criminal justice. S. Cal. L. Rev., 46, 12.

Snow, William & Briar, Katharine. (1990). The convergence of the mentally disordered and the jail population. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation. 15.147162.10.1080/10509674.1990.9963957.

Teplin, L. A. (2000). Keeping the Peace: Police Discretion and Mentally Ill Persons. National institute of justice journal, 244, 8-15.