Vice Squad
Friday, October 10, 2003
Zero Tolerance

Mark Kleiman laments two recent horror stories associated with zero
tolerance (ZT) policies. The failures of ZT are sufficiently legion
to keep at least two websites well-supplied -- see here (ZT Nightmares) and here (End ZT).
Nevertheless, faced with a longstanding problem with drugs or violence,
many jurisdictions still turn to ZT.

Regulatory regimes can be characterized by the standards of behavior that they call for, the nature
and extent of enforcement of those standards, and the punishments imposed on those violators
who are identified and apprehended. (This trichotomy is drawn from the work of Berkeley
professor Eugene Bardach -- see the reference at the bottom.) Zero tolerance policies
try to ratchet up the strictness in all three dimensions: standards are raised, so that behavior
that was not transgressive before becomes redefined as an offense; more police officers or other
enforcement resources are deployed to raise the probability that offenders are caught; and jail
sentences, fines, or other punishments are enhanced. More cops and stiffer penalties are
familiar components of any crackdown. The broadening of what constitutes an offense, however,
is somewhat more surprising. Schools seem particularly prone to designate offenses broadly when
they adopt zero tolerance policies: aspirin becomes a forbidden drug, or a key chain becomes a weapon.

"Zero tolerance" was born of vice policy: the term seems to date from the early 1980s, when the
US Navy was looking to control drug use among its sailors. Later, in 1988, the National Drug Policy
Board adopted a Zero Tolerance Program, which led to such measures as the seizure of a $2.5
million yacht because less than one-tenth of an ounce of marijuana was found on board. (The yacht
was eventually returned.)

Zero tolerance policies are designed to work by increasing deterrence. If people know that
impeccable behavior is expected, that failure to meet high standards is likely to result in
apprehension, and that the penalties imposed on violators are significant, then they will adjust
their behavior to conform to the standards. Or at least that is the theory.

The problem is that the theory of zero tolerance is internally inconsistent for most adult, vice-
related offenses (for kids, too, though that is another story). For the deterrence to work, you
have to make it clear that you will actually be able to catch offenders, and that you will be willing
to punish them according to the zero tolerance standards. In other words, the threatened
punishments must be credible. But for adult vice, both the ability to uncover offenses and the
willingness to punish them are hard to establish. Indeed, the "victimless" nature of vice crime
undermines both components of credibility -- the crimes are hard to bring to light, and the
willingness to impose harsh sentences for behavior that harms no one is frequently absent.
As a result, the adoption of a zero tolerance policy often sets a trap for enforcers. To try to
establish credibility, they indulge in public proclamations of their commitment to the new policy.
Then some minor or inadvertent "violation" comes to light, and the authorities can either destroy
the hard-gained credibility of the policy by not implementing it, or look foolish by harshly punishing
some minor violation, or even a clearly beneficial act.

Even when ZT policies can be imposed with a strong dose of credibility -- for instance, if mandatory
drug testing is sure to uncover any violations -- the credibility can still come with a heavy
price attached. You must still occasionally harshly punish people who haven't done much of
anything wrong, and furthermore, you might induce behaviors that are even worse. Having marijuana
smokers switch to alcohol (or hallucinogens) in order to pass mandatory drug tests is probably not an
improvement. Even when few people are punished, the price of a ZT policy might be severe. Imagine a
credible ZT policy against speeding, following too closely, or changing lanes without signaling while
driving. The entire driving experience would be incredibly nervewracking -- even well-intentioned
people will have to watch over their every move with such assiduous care that their quality of life will
be undermined. But to some extent this is what we have done to many teenagers, who have to ensure
that they don't have an aspirin on hand, don't forget to wear their belt, don't forget 1000 other things
that might trigger a ZT "violation" and suspension.

A lot more can be said about ZT, but perhaps the less the better. Diehards can check out Chapter 3
of my book, The Political Economy of Rule Evasion and Policy Reform.


Bardach, Eugene, "Social Regulation as a Generic Policy Instrument." Chapter 7, pp. 197-229, in
Lester M. Salamon and Michael S. Lund, eds., Beyond Privatization: The Tools of Government
, Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press, 1989.


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