Monday, October 1, 2007

Zero Tolerance: It's the American Way

Ever wonder how the concept of "Zero Tolerance" wormed its way into the mainstream of American culture? Here's a thought-provoking essay on the origins and the insidious spread of "ZT," which sets the tone for so much criminal justice policy these days.

Guest commentary by Richard Rapaport

Does it feel like nobody listens anymore? That everyone is tuned into their own channel? That people in your daily life are working from some secret script designed to degrade and disenfranchise you? Welcome to ZT America.

ZT, or Zero Tolerance, is the mind-set and rationale used these days to justify actions ranging from the expulsion of elementary school students for bringing alcohol-based mouthwash to school, to the sentencing of a Virginia mother to two years in prison for serving beer to her 16-year-old son and his classmates at a party.

Zero Tolerance has been invoked against a kaleidoscope of recent allegedly anti-social behaviors: Republican colleagues of Idaho Sen. Larry Craig clawed each other raw to declare Zero Tolerance for his alleged misdeeds in the men's room at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Zero Tolerance was on the faces of University of Florida police as they Tasered student Andrew Meyer during a speech by John Kerry. Meyer's imbecilic behavior, in fact, illustrated his own Zero Tolerance for the time and opinions of others.

ZT is in the American political bloodstream. After Hurricane Katrina, President Bush declared Zero Tolerance for looters. Trying to defuse the crisis in California prisons, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pronounced Zero Tolerance for "gang-related codes of silence." Mothers Against Drunk Driving avows to-the-death Zero Tolerance for underage drinking. The Defense Department proclaims ZT for sexual harassment.

Zero Tolerance has become a featured player in the American judicial pageant. Its tenets justify draconian overcharging and Methuselah-like jail terms. Zero Tolerance has helped transform American justice into an incarceration machine largely free from human interference or humane inference. ZT justice absolves officials from accusations of weakness on crime, while jailing people in record numbers. According to a recent Justice Department report, the United States now has the world's largest prison population and highest rate of incarceration, with 1 in 32 American adults enmeshed in the criminal justice system.

Like water hyacinth, the pestiferous houseplant invading Southern lakes and streams, Zero Tolerance is taking over the national fishpond, choking out once-treasured values like compassion, discretion and inventiveness. Over the past four decades, Zero Tolerance has metastasized from drug enforcement, to policing, into the court system, the public schools and now, perhaps worst of all, into the American social mainstream.

The institutionalization of Zero Tolerance policies signals the triumph of a bureaucratic mind-set more obstinately retrograde than the once-derided French or German models. I mean, have you been at the counter inside a Barnes & Noble, in line at the Century 20 ticket kiosk, or checking into a doctor's office, and asked for a slight bending of the house rules? Not this time, chump.

Nor does it take a genius to explain why Zero Tolerance is transforming America into "The Land Mercy Forgot." Zero Tolerance is, after all, the logical and syntactical equivalent of Total Intolerance. How unfortunate that there was no warning that we toiled under a system that has sanctioned total intolerance across the breadth of national life.

Originally culled from the engineering lexicon, Zero Tolerance first saw light in 1971, a PR slogan promulgated by New York public health officials who failed to detect tainted baby food in an upstate processing plant. In 1973, as Watergate's noose tightened, Nixon Justice Department officials appropriated Zero Tolerance as a tough-on-crime anodyne. In the early 1980s, the Navy adopted Zero Tolerance to add puissance to a purge of seagoing potheads. From there, it entered civilian drug enforcement and then spilled over into the general justice system, prospering as that ZT subspecies, Zero Tolerance for Crime, periodically trotted out to induce voters into backing law-and-order candidates.

In ZT America, God save the judge finding redemptive qualities in law-breakers. Creampuff sentencing is the Zero Tolerance equivalent of the scarlet "S," for Soft on Crime. Today, "victim's rights" organizations are twitching to replace "activist judges" with those favoring sentences that would have made Saddam Hussein blush. Having created a courtroom forum for victims and families, television now brings us a daily parade of the unmerciful, tasteless and overwrought, without seemingly a thought to the fading of John Adams' epochal instruction for "a nation of laws and not of men."

Discretion, once a tool of intelligent policing, has given way to drawn guns, takedowns and automatic arrest. Does anyone remember a time when a local cop might simply drive a tipsy taxpayer home? Not if MADD has anything to say about it. Zero Tolerance enforcement also sponsors a growing culture of entrapment that encourages the setups and stings that vacuum into the already full-to-bursting criminal justice system not the truly dangerous, but rather the merely stupid and weak.

The unhappiest consequence of Zero Tolerance, however, may be the rise of Generation ZT, children born beginning in the Reagan/Bush '80s, now the sacrificial lambs of Zero Tolerance and, paradoxically, as they have entered the workforce, its most loyal servants.

For these children of ZT, physiology is destiny: They are pudgy, raised indoors during the '90s Polly Klaas child-snatching hysteria. They are myopic, recipients of too much homework assigned too early. They walk hunched, from bulging book bags hefted after administrators sealed school lockers as potential drug magazines. Forbidden to explore local woods and instead accessories to parent-supervised play dates, they have little taste for solitude.

They are, however, anything but stupid. Beset on all sides, Generation ZT learned that a jesting lunchroom threat, a comb that looks like a switchblade, or a stick of caffeinated Jolt gum offered to a classmate could terminate Ivy League aspirations.

How much easier, then, to stifle the impulse to toilet-paper the assistant principal's car, or challenge the history teacher's lame Civil War interpretation. These days, however, any perceived act of resistance might bring the local police SWAT team charging through school's corridors. How much more practical to play it sly, pass through class without being the stuck-out nail pounded in by the hammer of Zero Tolerance. Yet, how sad to trim youthful sails to the winds of ZT at the age when gaudy mistakes are best made, the status quo mocked and hell generally raised.

Generation ZT has done few of those things. Having learned to love the subjugating rules required for success in the un-brave new world of Zero Tolerance, you can bet that their ascension up the American socio-economic ladder will mean an increasingly intolerant ZT eye cast on the often-unruly lives of the rest of us.

From the San Francisco Chronicle of Sept. 30; reprinted with the author's written permission.

 
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