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A zero tolerance policy imposes automatic punishment for infractions of a stated rule, with the intention of eliminating undesirable conduct. Zero-tolerance policies forbid persons 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 need not be severe, but it 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.
Little evidence supports the claimed effectiveness of zero-tolerance policies. 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.
The term "Zero Tolerance" appeared for the first time in a report in 1994. The idea behind this expression can be traced back to the Safe and Clean Neighborhoods Act, approved in New Jersey in 1973, of which inherits the same underlying assumptions. The ideas behind the 1973 New Jersey policy were later popularized in 1982, when a popular magazine published the broken windows theory of crime.
The title of the article comes from the following example:
Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside. Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants.
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. A well known criticism to this approach is that it redefines social problems in terms of security, it considers the poor as criminals, and it reduces crimes to only "street crimes", those committed by lower social classes, excluding white-collar crimes.
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 instead claimed by its advocates. On the other hand, large majorities of people who living in communities in which zero tolerance policing has been followed believe that in fact has played a key, leading role in reducing crime in their communities. 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. and that in the same period of time, 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 hold, 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.
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 impact on the evolution of offenses."
The crime decrease was due not 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.
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 vs 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 or terminated or expelled, they may not come forward at all when they see behavior deemed unacceptable. (This is a classic example of Type One/Type Two 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.
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. Similar concepts in other countries, such as Sweden, Italy, Japan, Singapore China, India and Russia 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 who would like to distinguish between occasional drug use and problem drug use. Although harm reductionists also see drug use as undesirable, they hold that the resources would do more good if they were to be allocated towards helping problem drug users instead of combating all drug users. 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."
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. 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 the main reason for Sweden's relatively low drug prevalence rates. However, that interpretation of the statistics and the more general success of Sweden's drug policies are highly questioned.
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. In the U.S., 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 law for drugs and driving, this 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 scoop of zero tolerance, if they are not covered by a prescription.
Zero-tolerance policies have been adopted in schools and other education venues around the world. These policies are usually promoted as preventing drug abuse and violence 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".
The unintended negative consequences are clearly documented and sometimes severe: school suspension and expulsion result in a number of negative outcomes for both schools and students. Although the policies are "facially neutral", minority children are the most likely to suffer the negative consequences of zero tolerance.
These policies have also resulted in embarrassing publicity for schools and have been struck down by the courts  and by Departments of Education, and they have been weakened by legislatures.
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:
Zero-tolerance policing runs counter to community policing and logical crime prevention efforts. To whatever degree street sweeps are viewed by citizens as brutal, suspect, militaristic, or the biased efforts of "outsiders," citizens will be discouraged from taking active roles in community building activities and crime prevention initiatives in conjunction with the police. Perhaps this is why the communities that most need neighborhood watch programs are least likely to be populated by residents who take active roles in them.
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).
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.
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