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A zero-tolerance policy is one which imposes a punishment for every infraction of a stated rule.[1][2][3] Zero-tolerance policies forbid people in positions of authority from exercising discretion or changing punishments to fit the circumstances subjectively; they are required to impose a pre-determined punishment regardless of individual culpability, extenuating circumstances, or history. This pre-determined punishment, whether mild or severe, is always meted out.

Zero-tolerance policies are studied in criminology and are common in formal and informal policing systems around the world. The policies also appear in informal situations where there may be sexual harassment or Internet misuse in educational and workplace environments. In 2014, the mass incarceration in the United States based upon minor offenses has resulted in an outcry on the use of zero tolerance in schools and communities.[4][5]

Little evidence supports the claimed effectiveness of zero-tolerance policies.[6] One underlying problem is that there are a great many reasons why people hesitate to intervene, or to report behavior they find to be unacceptable or unlawful. Zero-tolerance policies address, at best, only a few of these reasons.[7]


According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the first recorded use of the term "zero tolerance" was in 1972. It was originally used in politics in the United States.[8]

An earlier use of the term came in the mid-1960s, in reference to an absolute ban of the pesticide heptachlor by the United States Food and Drug Administration; for example, in an article that appeared in the June 1963 issue of Popular Mechanics, it is stated that "Heptachlor, though, is even more toxic and has been given a 'zero tolerance' by the FDA; that is, not even the slightest trace of heptachlor is permitted on food."[9]


The idea behind zero-tolerance policies can be traced back to the Safe and Clean Neighborhoods Act, approved in New Jersey in 1973,[10][11] which has the same underlying assumptions.[10][12][13] The ideas behind the 1973 New Jersey policy were later popularized in 1982, when a US cultural magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, published an article by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling about the broken windows theory of crime.[11] Their name for the idea comes from the following example:

According to scholars, zero tolerance is the concept of giving carte blanche to the police for the inflexible repression of minor offenses, homeless people, and the disorders associated with them.[12][13][14] A well-known criticism to this approach is that it redefines social problems in terms of security,[15] it considers the poor as criminals, and it reduces crimes to only "street crimes", those committed by lower social classes, excluding white-collar crimes.[16]

On the historical examples of the application of zero tolerance kind of policies, nearly all the scientific studies conclude that it didn't play a leading role in the reduction of crimes, a role which is claimed by its advocates. On the other hand, large majorities of people who are living in communities in which zero tolerance policing has been followed believe that in fact it has played a key, leading role in reducing crime in their communities.[16] It has been alleged that in New York City, the decline of crimes rate started well before Rudy Giuliani came to power in 1993, and none of the decreasing processes had particular inflection under him[16][17] and that in the same period, the decrease in crime was the same in the other major US cities, even those with an opposite security policy. But the experience of the vast majority of New Yorkers led them to precisely the opposite conclusion and allowed a Republican to win and retain the Mayor's office for the first time in decades in large part because of the perception that zero tolerance policing was key to the improving crime situation in New York City. On the other hand, some argue that in the years 1984-7 New York already experienced a policy similar to Giuliani's one, but it faced a crime increase instead.[16]

Two American specialists, Edward Maguire, a Professor at American University, and John Eck from the University of Cincinnati, rigorously evaluated all the scientific work designed to test the effectiveness of the police in the fight against crime. They concluded that "neither the number of policemen engaged in the battle, or internal changes and organizational culture of law enforcement agencies (such as the introduction of community policing) have by themselves any impact on the evolution of offenses."[16][18] They argue that crime decrease was due not to the work of the police and judiciary, but to economic and demographic factors. The main ones were an unprecedented economic growth with jobs for millions of young people, and a shift from the use of crack towards other drugs.[16][19]

An alternative argument comes from Kelling and William Bratton, Giuliani's original police chief, who argue that broken windows policing methods did contribute to the decrease in crime, but that they were not a form of zero tolerance:

Sheldon Wein has set out a list of six characteristics of a zero tolerance policy:[21]

Wein sees these points as representing "focal meaning" of the concept, namely, that not each one need be met literally, yet that any policy that clearly meets all six of these conditions would definitely be seen as a case of a zero tolerance policy.


Various institutions have undertaken zero-tolerance policies, for example, in the military, in the workplace, and in schools, in an effort to eliminate various kinds of illegal behavior, such as harassment. Proponents hope that such policies will underscore the commitment of administrators to prevent such behavior. Others raise a concern about this use of zero-tolerance policies, a concern which derives from analysis of errors of omission versus errors of commission. Here is the reasoning: Failure to proscribe unacceptable behavior may lead to errors of omission—too little will be done. But zero tolerance may be seen as a kind of ruthless management, which may lead to a perception of "too much being done". If people fear that their co-workers or fellow students may be fired, terminated, or expelled, they may not come forward at all when they see behavior deemed unacceptable. (This is a classic example of Type I and type II errors.) The Type Two error, where it occurs with respect to zero tolerance, leads to the situation where too stringent a policy may actually reduce reports of illegal behavior.[22]

In the United States, zero tolerance, as an approach against drugs, was originally designed as a part of the War on Drugs under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, ostensibly to curb the transfer of drugs at US borders. Law-enforcement was to target the drug users rather than the transporters or suppliers under the assumptions that harsh sentences and strict enforcement of personal use would reduce demand and, therefore, strike at root cause of the drug problem. The policy did not require additional laws; instead existing law was enacted with less leniency.[23] Similar concepts in other countries, such as Sweden,[24] Italy,[25] Japan,[26] Singapore[27] China, India, and Russia[28] have since been labeled zero tolerance.

A consistence of zero tolerance is the absolute dichotomy between the legality of any use and no use, equating all illicit drugs and any form of use as undesirable and harmful to society. This is contrasting to viewpoints of those who stress the disparity in harmfulness among drugs, and would like to distinguish between occasional drug use and problem drug use. Although some harm reductionists also see drug use as generally undesirable, they hold that the resources would do more good if they were allocated toward helping problem drug users instead of combating all drug users.[23][29] As an example, research findings from Switzerland indicate that emphasis on problem drug users "seems to have contributed to the image of heroin as unattractive for young people."[30]

On a more general level, zero-tolerance advocates holds the aim at ridding the society of all illicit drug use and that criminal justice has an important role in that endeavor.[23] The Swedish parliament for example set the vision a drug-free society as the official goal for the drug policy in 1978. These visions were to prompt new practices inspired by Nils Bejerot, practices later labeled as Zero tolerance. In 1980 the Swedish attorney general finally dropped the practice of giving waivers for possession of drugs for personal use after years of lowering the thresholds. The same year, police began to prioritize drug users and street-level drug crimes over drug distributors. In 1988 all non medicinally prescribed usage became illegal and in 1993 the enforcement of personal use were eased by permitting the police to take blood or urine samples from suspects. This unrelenting approach towards drug users, together with generous treatment opportunities, have won UNODC's approval, and is cited by the UN as one of the main reasons for Sweden's relatively low drug prevalence rates.[24] However, that interpretation of the statistics and the more general success of Sweden's drug policies are highly questioned.[31][32][33]

The term is used in the context of driving under the influence of alcohol, referring to a lower illegal blood alcohol content for drivers under the age of 21.[34] In the US, the legal limit in all states is now .08%, but for drivers under 21 the prohibited level in most states is .01% or .02%. This is also true in Puerto Rico despite a drinking age of 18.

In Europe, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, and Sweden have zero-tolerance laws for drugs and driving, as opposed to the other main legal approach where laws forbidding impaired driving is enacted instead. The legislation among countries that practice zero tolerance on drug use for drivers varies. Only a limited set of (common) drugs are included in the zero-tolerance legislation in Germany and Belgium, where in Finland and Sweden all controlled substances fall into the scope of zero tolerance, if they are not covered by a prescription.[35]

In Argentina, the Cordoba State Highway Patrol enforces a zero-tolerance policy.

In Asia, Japan also practices zero-tolerance for alcohol and driving. The people caught driving after drinking, including the next morning if there are still traces of alcohol, receive a fine and can be fired. Foreigners may even be deported.[36]

Zero-tolerance policies have been adopted in schools and other education venues around the world. These policies are usually promoted as preventing drug abuse, violence, and gang activity in schools. In schools, common zero-tolerance policies concern possession or use of drugs or weapons. Students and, sometimes staff, parents, and other visitors, who possess a banned item or perform any prohibited action for any reason are automatically punished. School administrators are barred from using their judgment, reducing severe punishments to be proportional to minor offenses, or considering extenuating circumstances. For example, the policies treat possession of a knife identically, regardless of whether the knife is a blunt table knife being used to eat a meal, a craft knife used in an art class, or switchblade with no reasonable practical or educational value. Consequently, these policies are sometimes derided as "zero-intelligence policies".[37]

There is no credible evidence that zero tolerance reduces violence or drug abuse by students.[38][39][40]

The unintended negative consequences are clearly documented and sometimes severe:[39] school suspension and expulsion result in a number of negative outcomes for both schools and students.[38] Although the policies are "facially neutral", minority children are the most likely to suffer the negative consequences of zero tolerance.[41]

These policies have also resulted in embarrassing publicity for schools and have been struck down by the courts[42][43] and by Departments of Education, and they have been weakened by legislatures.[43]


Some critics have argued that "zero tolerance" policing violates the Law Enforcement Code of Conduct passed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which says in part: "The fundamental duties of a police officer include serving the community, safeguarding lives and property, protecting the innocent, keeping the peace and ensuring the rights of all to liberty, equality and justice" (cited in Robinson, 2002). This code requires that police behave in a courteous and fair manner, that they treat all citizens in a respectable and decent manner, and that they never use unnecessary force. As Robinson (2002: 206) explains:

Critics say that zero-tolerance policing will fail because its practice destroys several important requisites for successful community policing, namely police accountability, openness to the public, and community cooperation (Cox and Wade 1998: 106).

Zero tolerance policies violate principles of health and human services, and standards of the education and healthy growth of children, families and communities. Even traditional community service providers in the 1970s aimed for "services for all" (e.g., zero reject) instead of 100% societal exclusion(zero tolerance). Public administration and disability has supported principles which include education, employment, housing, transportation, recreation and political participation in the community.[44] which zero tolerance groups claim are not a right in the US.

Opponents of zero tolerance believe that such a policy neglects investigation on a case-by-case basis and may lead to unreasonably harsh penalties for crimes that may not warrant such penalties in reality. Another criticism of zero-tolerance policies is that it gives officers and the legal system little discretion in dealing with offenders. Zero-tolerance policies may prohibit their enforcers from making the punishment fit the crime.

It also may cause offenders to go all out, knowing if the punishment is the same for a little or a lot. This phenomenon of human nature is described in an adage that dates back to at least the 17th century, "might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb": until 1820, the English law prescribed hanging for stealing anything worth more than one shilling, whether that was a low-value lamb or a whole flock of sheep.[45]

In the Kids for cash scandal, judge Mark Ciavarella, who promoted a platform of zero tolerance, received kickbacks for constructing a private prison that housed juvenile offenders, and then proceeded to fill the prison by sentencing children to extended stays in juvenile detention for offenses as minimal as mocking a principal on Myspace, scuffles in hallways, trespassing in a vacant building, and shoplifting DVDs from Walmart. Critics of zero-tolerance policies argue that harsh punishments for minor offences are normalized. The documentary Kids for Cash interviews experts on adolescent behaviour, who argue that the zero tolerance model has become a dominant approach to policing juvenile offences after the Columbine shooting.[46]

Recently, argumentation theorists (especially Sheldon Wein) have suggested that, frequently, when people advocate adopting a zero tolerance policy, they commit what he has called the "zero tolerance fallacy".[47] Subsequently, Wein has proposed standards which arguments for zero tolerance policies must meet in order to avoid such fallacious inferences.[48]

See also

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