Zero tolerance

This article is about the general type of punishment policy. For other uses, see Zero tolerance (disambiguation).

A zero tolerance policy is one which imposes strict punishment for infractions of a stated rule, with the intention of eliminating undesirable conduct.[1][2][3] 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, 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 political language 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:

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.[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 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 impact on the evolution of offenses."[16][18]

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.[16][19]

Areas of application

Zero tolerance and harassment and bullying in the workplace

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.[20]

Zero tolerance and narcotics

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.[21] Similar concepts in other countries, such as Sweden,[22] Italy,[23] Japan,[24] Singapore[25] China, India, and Russia[26] 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 harm reductionists also see drug use as 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.[21][27] 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."[28]

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.[21] 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.[22] However, that interpretation of the statistics and the more general success of Sweden's drug policies are highly questioned.[29][30][31]

Zero tolerance and driving

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.[32] 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.[33]

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.[34]

In schools

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".[35]

There is no credible evidence that zero tolerance reduces violence or drug abuse by students.[36][37][38]

The unintended negative consequences are clearly documented and sometimes severe:[37] school suspension and expulsion result in a number of negative outcomes for both schools and students.[36] Although the policies are "facially neutral", minority children are the most likely to suffer the negative consequences of zero tolerance.[39]

These policies have also resulted in embarrassing publicity for schools and have been struck down by the courts[40][41] and by Departments of Education, and they have been weakened by legislatures.[41]


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).

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.[42] 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.[43]

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.[44][45]

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".[46] Subsequently, Wein has proposed standards which arguments for zero tolerance policies must meet in order to avoid such fallacious inferences.[47]

Discrimination by state-run monopoly


Beverages advertised as "non alcoholic", or "alcohol-free" sold by countries with zero tolerance with state-run liquor monopoly, actually contain alcohol. Alcohol is a psychoactive drug and some people say that these labels are misleading and are a threat to recovering alcoholics.[48]

See also


  1. zero tolerance, n. (under zero, n.). The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition 1989. Retrieved 10 November 2009 from website.
  2. zero tolerance. (n.d.). The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Retrieved 10 November 2009, from website.
  3. "Zero Tolerance - Cambridge English Dictionary". Cambridge Dictionaries Online. Cambridge University. Retrieved 3 June 2016.
  4. Ben-Moshe, L., Chapman, C. & Carey, A.C. (2014). Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the United States and Canada. NY, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
  5. Ervelles, N. (2014). Crippin' Jim Crow: Disability, Dis-location, and the School to Prison Pipeline. In: Carey, A., Ben-Moshe, L., & Chapman, C., Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the United States and Canada. NY, NY: Palgrave MacMillan.
  6. Rowe and Bendersky, 2002
  7. "Dealing with—or Reporting—"Unacceptable" Behavior - with additional thoughts about the Bystander Effect" © 2009 Mary Rowe MIT, Linda Wilcox HMS, Howard Gadlin NIH, JIOA, vol 2, no 1, p52.
  8. "Zero Tolerance". Online Etymology DIctionary. Retrieved 2012-04-07.
  9. Clifford B. Hicks, "And Was It a Silent Spring?", Popular Mechanics, June 1963, p. 87.
  10. 1 2 Tonello (2007)
  11. 1 2 Wilson and Kelling (1982)
  12. 1 2 Wacquant, Loïc (1999)
  13. 1 2 Marshall 1999, p.2
  14. "anti-social behaviours associated with the homeless" as in Kelling's own terminology
  15. Wacquant, Loïc (1999): "une comparaison méthodique montrerait tout de suite que la prétendue « montée inexorable » des « violences urbaines » est avant tout une thématique politico-médiatique visant à faciliter la redéfinition des problèmes sociaux en termes de sécurité", eng: "A comparison would show immediately that the so-called "inexorable rise" of the "urban violence" is first and foremost a political-media theme aimed at facilitating the redefinition of social problems in terms of security"
  16. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Wacquant, Loïc (2002)
  17. Fagan et al. (1998)
  18. Eck and Maguire (2000)
  19. Bowling (1999)
  20. "Workplace Justice, Zero Tolerance and Zero Barriers: Getting People to Come Forward in Conflict Management Systems," with Corinne Bendersky, in Negotiations and Change, From the Workplace to Society, Thomas Kochan and Richard Locke (editors), Cornell University Press, 2002.
  21. 1 2 3 "Zero Tolerance"-entry Drugs, Alcohol and Tobacco: Learning About Addictive Behavior Rosalyn Carson-Dewitt, et al. MacMillan Reference Books, 2001-2006
  22. 1 2 UNODC: Sweden's successful drug policy, 2007
  23. Peter Popham (2003-04-18). "Italy signs up to zero-tolerance drugs crackdown". The Independent. Retrieved 2009-03-18.
  24. "Statement to the UN general assembly by Mr. Makoto Hashizume, Delegation of Japan, on Agenda Item 106: Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice and Agenda Item 107: International Drug Control". Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan. 2005-10-07. Retrieved 2009-03-18.
  25. Jamie Lee; Geert De Clercq (2007-01-23). "Singapore drug cases jump 42 pct on Subutex abuse". Reuters. Retrieved 2010-05-20.
  26. Luke Baker (2009-03-10). "Drug policy groups decry fresh UN anti-drug strategy". Reuters. Retrieved 2009-03-18.
  27. Ming-sum Tsui "The harm reduction approach revisited: An international perspective" International Social Work 2000, vol 43, page 243
  28. Carlos Nordt, Rudolf Stohler "Incidence of heroin use in Zurich, Switzerland: a treatment case register analysis" Archived February 3, 2010, at the Wayback Machine. the Lancet 2006, vol 367, page 1830–34
  29. Cohen, Peter (2006). Looking at the UN, smelling a rat. Amsterdam: CEDRO.
  30. Tham, Henrik (September 1998). "Swedish Drug Policy: A Successful Model?". European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research. Springer Netherlands. 6 (3): 395–414. doi:10.1023/A:1008699414325. Retrieved 2009-03-20.
  31. Editorial comment (March 2009). "Failed states and failed policies - How to stop the drug wars". The Economist.
  32. "Florida DUI | Drunk Driving". Retrieved 2016-12-02.
  33. P. Lillsunde, T. Gunnar "Drugs and driving: The Finnish perspective" Bulletin on Narcotics, vol. LVII, Nos. 1 and 2, 2005 page 214]
  34. Lyon, Peter (2015-04-18). "Drink-driving in Japan is serious business -". Retrieved 2016-12-02.
  35. "Zero Tolerance is Zero Intelligence". Delaware Liberal. 6 October 2009.
  36. 1 2 Russell J. Skiba Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence: An Analysis of School Disciplinary Practice Policy Research Report #SRS2 August, 2000
  37. 1 2 Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? An evidentiary review and recommendations. American Psychologist, December 2008.
  38. Zero Tolerance Policies: no substitute for good judgment Summary of the APA Task Force Report at
  39. American Bar Association. Zero Tolerance Policy Report, 2001
  40. "Pensacola honor students win zero tolerance drug ruling", Associated Press/Bradenton Herald, Sept. 8, 2002. Summarized at
  41. 1 2 Ben Nuckols (AP) (October 13, 2009). "Delaware 1st grader has 45-day suspension lifted". ABC News.
  42. Racino, J. (2014). Public Administration and Disability: Community Services Administration in the US. London: CRC Press, Francis and Taylor.
  43. Christine Ammer (1997) The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 978-0-395-72774-4 p. 279.
  44. Khan, Daryl (2014-02-10). "A Plot with a Scandal: A Closer Look at 'Kids for Cash' Documentary". Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Retrieved 2015-09-19.
  46. "Intolerance and the Zero Tolerance Fallacy", What do We Know about the World? Rhetorical & Argumentative Perspectives (edited by Gabrijela Kišiček and Igor Ž. Žagar), co-published by the Digital Library Dissertationes (Educational Research Institute, Ljubljana, Slovenia) and the Centre for Research on Reasoning, Argumentation, and Rhetoric, Windsor Studies in Argumentation, University of Windsor Press, 2013 (pages 132 to 144).
  47. For more on the virtues and vices of zero tolerance arguments, see "Exploring the Virtues (and Vices) of Zero Tolerance Arguments", Proceedings of the 2013 OSSA Conference (edited by Dima Mohammed and Marcin Lewiński), Centre for Research on Reasoning, Argumentation, and Rhetoric (CRRAR) publishing, 2014; also, and and
  48. "Sweden's alcohol-free drink label 'misleading'". 29 October 2012. Retrieved 2013-02-05.


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