Recently I came across an interview with a lawyer who expressed some of his views on the nature of justice as follows; “I am pro-police state. I would have every Garda in the country armed. I would tolerate nothing. Zero tolerance”.
By itself the concept of zero tolerance is controversial, but add in a police state and you have an extremely potent and dangerous mixture. The essence of a zero-tolerance policy is that imposes an automatic punishment for breaking a law or a rule, and the person who is administering that punishment, such as a judge, is forbidden to exercise any discretion in applying the sanction, no matter what the circumstances are. This means that the background to the incident is not relevant, the intention of the offender is not relevant, and any extenuating circumstances, no matter how persuasive, are not relevant, and cannot be taken into account.
Zero tolerance laws are generally focussed on petty crime, drink offences and anti-social behaviour. The theory is that if you can stamp out the minor crimes, the result is that, somehow, a respect for law will seep upwards through society, and we will all become a more law-abiding people. One of the frequently recounted examples of where this policy is claimed to have worked spectacularly well is in New York in the early 1990’s under the tenure of Mayor Rudy Giuliani. He was credited with having cleaned up the streets of the New York and dramatically reduced the crime rate with his zero tolerance policies.
As with all simple wonder solutions to complex problems, the reality is very different. With the benefit of hindsight it is apparent that there were many different factors at work in the reduction of crime in New York in the 1990’s, not least of which was a falling crime rate for years before these policies were introduced. In fact there is very little evidence to show in any conclusive way that zero tolerance policies are effective in reducing crime throughout society.
In practice it can be inflexible, harsh and lacking in common sense and does not in any way address the underlying causes of crime. On the other hand, you could take the view that, while the policies may not be very effective, at least they are not doing any harm, so why not keep them anyway? Again, it’s not all that simple. For young people particularly, an early brush with the law can have a lifelong effect, for good or for bad, depending on how that experience is handled. With common sense policing most youngsters who get into bother will learn their lesson from a warning, and will never re-offend. With zero tolerance you go straight to criminal punishment, labelling youngsters as criminals at an early age.
The effect of this is that many then see themselves as criminals, and see themselves as being outside mainstream society. Add to that the fact that zero tolerance means a conviction for an offence, with punishment which may include jail. A conviction means a criminal record which in turn translates into virtual unemployability. The damage to society is obvious, leaving aside the fact that rehabilitation of the offender in this scenario is practically non-existent.
If zero tolerance policies are not effective, then the obvious question has to be, why aren’t these policies just dumped? One study which concluded that the policy is a simplistic quick fix raised the same question, and concluded that eliminating zero tolerance policies is a hard sell because as a concept it gives the impression of high standards, it sounds tough, and it’s simple to understand.