Rule by Rule: “Zero Tolerance Policies” and the Decline of Common Sense

By Thomas Kochman - 10.16.2009

The NY Times editorial “Back Where He Belongs” addresses the injustice behind the expulsion of a six year old boy who brought a Cub Scout camping utensil to school that contained a small knife.

Behind that decision was a 1994 Congressional law that required states to pass laws mandating expulsion for students who bring firearms onto school property which many States and school systems translated into “zero tolerance policies” leading to the criminalization of minor offenses.

Apart from what these acts of injustice bring up about what constitutes fair play — specifically that a punishment should fit the crime— “zero tolerance” policies take discretionary authority out of the equation transforming governance into a robotic and simplistic rule by rule.

The rationale for taking individual discretion out of the equation probably has something to do with limiting legal liability—the view that policies are “suit-proof” to the extent that they are applied uniformly. 

But the consequences of rule by rule take out the very thing that makes us human with outcomes that would be laughable if they weren’t so disastrous or grating, like mandatory life sentences based on the “Three Strikes You’re Out” rule to uniformly carding everyone at airport lounges –including senior citizens– to make sure they are of “drinking age.”

What’s the point of educating people to make correct decisions if you make them all into drones?