What George Mason Experts Are Saying about…Zero-Tolerance Policies

Posted: August 27, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

The issue: Zero-tolerance policies in public schools. School administrators and parents hope to stop youth violence and make schools safer by implementing these policies. However, some legal experts, the American Bar Association, and even members of Congress believe zero tolerance in schools has gone too far.

Some cases: In Arlington, Va., 10-year-olds were charged with felonies for putting soapy water in a teacher’s drink. In New Jersey, an 8-year-old spent five hours in police custody and had to make two court appearances for holding an L-shaped piece of paper at recess and saying “pow, pow” to other students. In Georgia, a 5-year-old kindergarten student was suspended for bringing a plastic gun the size of a quarter to school.

Our expert: Paul Rosenzweig, adjunct professor of law at George Mason and a senior legal research fellow in the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation. Rosenzweig’s research on zero tolerance is part of a broader research program on the use and misuse of criminal law as a way of controlling human behavior. Much of this research, including case studies, can be found at www.overcriminalized.com.

Have zero tolerance policies gone too far?

“Way too far. It used to be that an act wasn’t a crime unless someone did the actions with a wrongful intent (i.e., a deliberate killing). Now, like the kids in the schools, many crimes don’t require proof of intent—you’re guilty even for an accident. The American Bar Association agrees: “‘Zero tolerance’ is public education’s effort to import to education the concept of adult mandatory sentencing. But it is worse because it is a perverse version of mandatory sentencing. First, it takes no account of what we know about child and adolescent development. Second, at least in the criminal justice system when mandatory sentences exist, there are different mandatory sentences for offenses of different seriousness. For the educational system, zero tolerance is a one-size fits all answer.'”

Why is this happening?

“Fear. Parents fear harm to their children and they think (wrongly) that zero-tolerance policies will stop the next Columbine High School attack. And school administrators fear blame—if they have a zero-tolerance policy, then they have no discretion to make decisions. And if there is no discretion, then they never have to defend judgments that go wrong.”

Any solutions?

“Education mostly. The public doesn’t know what is happening, and the legislatures don’t think that there are any harmful effects from too many criminal laws. Both need to learn that not every wrong should be treated as a crime and that we are much better off if we exercise thoughtful judgment to sort the truly criminal from the merely foolish. Perhaps it’s time we penalize overzealous adults who don’t check their predilections for overcriminalization at the door of common sense.”

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