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Zero Tolerance Makes Zero Sense

Point Of View: Zero Tolerance Makes Zero Sense

By Barb Sumner Burstyn.

POV was first published on…

“We need a New York-style zero tolerance approach which has reduced violent crime in that city by 30 percent,” said ACT party leader Richard Prebble on March 22. The press release goes on to state that violent crime in New Zealand has risen by 14.9 % since the last election.

ACT NZ Leader Richard
Prebble.But Mr Prebble must have his wires crossed. Not only did New York not implement zero tolerance per se (their program was called Broken Windows) the effectiveness of the program in reducing crime has been hotly contested.

During the period that New York experienced its crime drop San Francisco also found its crime rate dive by more than 30% following the implementation of a range of alternative and liberal crime reduction polices.

According to the New Zealand Police there may not even be an actual increase in crime at all, but rather an increase in reporting through cell phones, lower public tolerance and a pro-arrest family violence policy. And certainly the ACT press release forgot to mention that burglaries are down by 14.6 % and homicide, surely the most serious of violent crime has remained about the same for the past decade.

In fact crime in general in New Zealand, along with most other English speaking countries, is in decline. In America many types of crime are at their lowest levels in 30 years. And while advocates of harsh penal systems say the lowered levels are evidence of the success rate of zero tolerance it certainly doesn't account for the corresponding drop in countries like Canada where the incarceration rates are almost one-sixth that of America.

According to recent publications such as Race to Incarcerate by Marc Mauer and The Crime Drop in America, there’s ample evidence that declining crime is a result of a combination of factors. One contributor to the latter title, University of Texas, Austin mathematician William Spelman even concluded his research into crime by saying that “increased incarceration accounts for perhaps as little as ‘one-forth of the crime drop.”

All this would suggest that ACT’s bland acceptance of the US figures is, if not intentional then certainly specious. But it seems that even if they omitted to substantiate their figures or provide balanced and researched information they have got one thing right. Zero tolerance is a vote catcher.

In the States tough-on-crime policies have proved to be a constant crowd pleaser with many commentators believing that politicians and voters have caused the US prison boom not the actual crime rate. And what a boom it is. With just five percent of the world’s population America has 25 per cent of its prisoners - that’s over 2 million incarcerated people, with California alone housing more prisoners than Canada, Germany and Italy combined.

But what does zero tolerance mean? What began in 1986 as off-the-cuff comment by a San Diego District Attorney discussing his office's approach to drug shipments has mushroomed into an epidemic of one-size-fits-all policies regardless of circumstance and devoid of personal judgment. Picked up immediately by politicians, the term has become so pervasive that it now represents the new orthodoxy in public debate, stifling all discussion on alternatives not grounded in punishment. Ironically the first ship seized under the San Diego ruling, a multi-million dollar research vessel found to contain a single joint left behind by a scientist, had to be given back, proving immediately how flawed the concept was.

But beyond political rhetoric and any real analysis of crime rates and the seduction of thinking you’ll make a country safer by locking up more criminals, what does zero tolerance mean in a community?

In New Zealand implementation would represent a subtle but powerful move away from believing in rehabilitation. It would mean we genuinely believe that a good proportion of offenders are beyond help. It would change the way New Zealanders think of prisons and prisoners, just as it has in California where the word rehabilitation was recently removed from statutes and replaced with ‘punishment’. There, deterrence, incapacitation, even vengeance are the guiding principals of the ‘punishment industry.’

If we do in fact believe that a whole segment of society is beyond help - and zero tolerance would ensure that imprisonment becomes the first response of first resort for many social problems - then how do we treat the people caught in that net? Do we need to add a codicil to not only our human rights legislation but also New Zealanders fundamental belief in equality?

But it goes further than that. There’s ample evidence the zero tolerance attitude has a habit of slipping from the domain of the criminal into every day life. Especially into education where in the States kids as young as six can and have been suspended from school and in some cases prosecuted for so much as pointing a crumbed chicken finger, for drawing a picture of a weapon, for wearing perfume in contravention of scent-free policy or for even giving an aspirin to a classmate.
And it doesn’t stop there, zero tolerance has many permutations. With each incremental increase in legislation the arena of our decision-making is reduced. Judgment calls; that moment when you’re faced with a dilemma, with something that’s cruel or unjust, or even petty and minor will be reduced to deciding which flavour yoghurt to buy and any meaningful connect with the deeper values of right and good, with personal consequence, will be all but eliminated. And ironically even ACT’s own stated principals; individual freedom and choice, personal responsibility and the protection of the life, liberty and property of each and every citizen will be at risk - unless of course they actually mean it to be applied to just a segment of the population.

So vote catching aside, even a simple analysis of ACT’s zero tolerance policy reveals not only how flawed it is but just who the real beneficiaries will be: the prison building and management industry. In America it has become a major business, soaking up increasing chunks of government funds at the expense of health and education, but all supposedly at the behest of the voters, sold a panacea for an non-existence illness.

And if ACT gets its way, New Zealand won’t be far behind.

Barb expresses her thanks to Dan Gardner, Ottawa Citizen, for additional research.
© Barbara Sumner Burstyn April 2002.
P.O.V. with Barb Sumner Burstyn.@

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