The term zero tolerance refers to a government or private employer’s nondiscretionary enforcement policy that requires fixed penalties to be imposed on any violators regardless of extenuating circumstances. Zero-tolerance policies emerged from several federal- and state-level drug enforcement initiatives in the 1980s and 1990s. They have been applied in public schools, the military, and the private sector.
During the Reagan and Bush administrations (1981-93), the War on Drugs campaign utilized a zero-tolerance policy to prohibit the illegal sale of drugs across U.S. borders. U.S. Customs and the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Diego initiated the policy for this “war.” Any individual crossing the United States-Mexico border arrested for possession of drugs received a mandatory prison sentence upon conviction. The U.S. Customs Service found this policy so effective in deterring future drug trafficking across the border that it recommended its national adoption. By 1988, the National Drug Policy Board and the White House Conference on a Drug-Free America required that all federal drug enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard, adopt and enforce zero-tolerance policies. From this point onward, zero tolerance became a criminal justice approach to the war on drugs, given the rigid punishments and penalties accompanying the policies.
In the late 1980s, zero-tolerance policies expanded to encompass school-based violence in response to several school shootings across the country. In 1989, schools in Orange County, California, and Louisville, Kentucky, were the first to adopt zero-tolerance policies for any students violating rules on drug possession and/or involved in gang activity. A 1991 study found that 1 in every 18 students carried a gun to school at some time during his or her high school years. Furthermore, studies showed that, across the country, approximately 100,000 guns are brought to school each day. By 1993, many states were adopting school zero-tolerance policies. In 1994, Congress passed the Gun Free Schools Act, bringing zero-tolerance policies to the national level. The Gun Free Schools Act required every school that received government funding to expel students bringing to school any object that could be considered a weapon or any illegal drugs or prescription drugs. This mandatory expulsion for one calendar year also required the school administrators to send a referral regarding the student’s behavior to the juvenile justice system.
In addition to the zero-tolerance policies on drugs and school violence, zero-tolerance policies have been adopted in a wide array of public and private sectors, including among most Fortune 500 companies. Perhaps the most stringent of such policies are those on sexual harassment and racial extremists as addressed in the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The military policy on sexual harassment requires the immediate response to any incident of sexual harassment through the appropriate chain of command. The zero-tolerance policy on racial extremists gives U.S. military officials the authority to adopt zero tolerance of racial extremists’ speech and/or activities, even though such action is unconstitutional in civilian life.
Although zero-tolerance policies have been adopted nationally in many areas of public and private life, much controversy still remains surrounding these policies. Many critics compare zero-tolerance policies to mandatory minimum sentencing in the criminal justice system, stating that in many instances such policies are too harsh for the crimes. Critics argue that the zero-tolerance policies on drugs deplete much-needed resources of federal agencies because they are too concerned with identifying individual drug traffickers rather than focusing on the massive flow of drugs into the United States. Even with zero-tolerance policies in effect in the military, a 1995 study released by the Department of Defense indicates that nearly 52 percent of female personnel and 9 percent of male personnel experienced some type of sexual harassment.
Perhaps the most significant controversy surrounding zero tolerance is in schools. Many critics believe that too many children are unfairly punished for minor offenses. Statistics show that the number of school suspensions nearly doubled from 3.7 percent of students (1.7 million students) in 1974 to 6.8 percent of students (3.2 million students) in 1998, with an additional 100,000 expelled. Critics argue that the vast majority of these suspensions and expulsions were for minor offenses that did not warrant such harsh punishment.
Recent trends of zero-tolerance policies indicate that crimes of all types are down, by as much as 30 percent, in public schools across the country. Furthermore, less than 1 percent of all violent crimes involving juveniles occur on school grounds. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of school homicides, suicides, and nonfatal crimes decreased significantly during the years 1992-2002. Another trend is the many alternatives to zero-tolerance policies proposed as more appropriate methods of enforcement. Such alternatives favor prevention rather than punishment and focus on known risk factors to address and overcome.
- Casella, Ronnie. 2003. “Zero Tolerance Policy in Schools: Rationale, Consequences, and Alternatives.” Teachers College Record 105(5):872-92.
- Ismaili, Karim. 2003. “Explaining the Cultural and Symbolic Resonance of Zero Tolerance in Contemporary Criminal Justice.” Contemporary Justice Review 3:255-64.
- Knox, Frank. 2001. “Clarifying Zero Tolerance.” Police Journal 74(4):292-302.
- Oklahoma Council on Violence Prevention. 2001. A Study of School Zero-Tolerance Policies. Oklahoma City, OK: Oklahoma Criminal Justice Resource Center.
- Tebo, Margaret Graham. 2000. “Zero Tolerance, Zero Sense.” American Bar Association Journal 86(April):40-45.
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