“Zero Tolerance” policies are becoming more and more popular in our nation’s schools, workplaces, and other venues, especially as far as guns and other weapons related items are concerned. The problem is that these policies lead to unjust results and defy common sense. Zero tolerance policies run contrary to the ideas of justice that we as a civilization have been developing for centuries, and should be abandoned. Allow me to explain:
Zero Tolerance Policies Lead to Unjust Results
By their very definition, “zero tolerance” policies do not consider the specifics of the circumstances. Instead, they apply a one-size-fits-all approach to punishment, regardless of the actual circumstances. Once such example is that of a 4th grade student who brought a harmless and inert piece of brass to school, and was suspended because this piece of brass was related to firearms. This unjust punishment teaches children the wrong lesson.
Zero Tolerance is a Step Backward in the Progression of Justice
Over the years, our society has improved its justice system to more fairly and effectively deal with those who commit crimes. Zero tolerance is a reversal of this progress:
A few hundred years ago at common law, most crimes were felonies. This included writing bad checks and pickpocketing. At the same time, all felonies were capitol offenses. This meant that the murder, the rapist, and the pick pocket would all be hanged in the same gallows. Youth did not exempt one from such capitol punishment either, as the countless child pickpockets who were hanged shows.
As a civilization, we came to recognize that it is wrong to punish every crime in the same way, and that the punishment should fit the crime. That is why premeditated murder is punished more harshly than an accidental killing As the years passed we further recognized that the special circumstances of each offense should influence the punishment. For example, very young children and the mentally retarded who kill should not be held to the same standard as an ordinary adult.
We also learned that the mental state (called the “mens reus”) matters just as much, if not more, than the physically act. In other words, there must (generally) be a guilty mind, not just the harmful action. This means that a person who accidentally walks away with the wrong umbrella has not committed theft, since they did not indent to deprive another of his property. In short, we have learned how to more justly punish criminals while not punishing law abiding citizens.
Zero tolerance undoes these advances. Instead of taking in to account the severity of the conduct, it punishes everyone alike, and fails to take into account the mental state of the “offender.” For example, there was the case of a high school student and future Olympic athlete who was quite busy and exhausted between school, studying for college entrance exams, and participating in Olympic target practice. She inadvertently left an unopened box of shotgun shells (but not a gun) in her car, and drove to school. Under a zero tolerance policy, she was punished just as a would-be school shooter would have been punished, which defies all common sense. Certainly the student should have been more careful, but to punish her so harshly in the absence of any criminal intent is pointless and unjust.
Rather than admitting that “zero tolerance” policies are unjust and pointless, school and workplace officials cling to them. Some such officials fear that they will be labeled “soft on crime” if they repeal these policies. Others find it easier to just give out the same punishment to everyone, instead of taking the time to investigate the circumstances of each case. Still others like such knee-jerk reactions to complex social problems such as violence in schools, and prefer to harshly punish everyone to make themselves feel better. Regardless of the reasoning behind such zero tolerance policies, they are unjust and a step backward in our progression toward greater justice.