Zero Tolerance Policing – An Evaluation

A brief evaluation of Zero Tolerance Policing

Zero Tolerance Policing involves the police strictly clamping down on minor criminal activities such as littering, begging, graffiti and other forms of antisocial behaviour. Clamping down might take the form of on the spot fines, or mandatory jail sentences, as with the ‘three-strikes’ rule in California.

The best known example of Zero Tolerance Policy was its adoption in New York City in 1994. At that time, the city was in the grip of a crack-cocaine epidemic and suffered high levels of antisocial and violent crime. Within a few years of Zero Tolerance, however, crime had dropped from between 30 – 50%.

In the UK Zero Tolerance has been applied in Liverpool, a relatively high-crime rate city. Following its introduction in 2005, overall recorded crime fell by 25.7 per cent in the three years to 2008 with violent crime falling by 38%.

Another application of Zero Tolerance is the ASBO – you can get an ASBO for antisocial rather than criminal behaviour, and go to jail if you breach it, thus ASBOs police minor acts of deviance.

The rationale behind the ASBO stems from the right realist (right wing/ new right/ neoliberal view of the causes of crime – they hold the individual responsible for crime, seeing the individual as making a rational choice to commit crime – if people believe the reward of committing crime outweighs the risk of getting caught and the cost of the punishment, they will commit crime – ZT addresses this by increasing the punishments for minor crimes. This also fits in with Broken Windows Theory – by focussing on minor crimes, this prevents these spiralling into major crimes, and it fits in with the New Right’s view that the state should be ‘tough on crime’

The biggest strength of ZT is that it seems to work – as the figures above demonstrate. It is also relatively cheap to implement and seems to have an immediate effect on crime, unlike the more expensive, long term, social solutions preferred by Left Realists. It also makes the public feel as if something is being done about crime, and gives victims a sense of justice.

However, there are many downsides – Firstly, Zero Tolerance Policing in New York resulted in a lot more people being arrested for possession of marijuana – 25 000 a year by 2012 (one every ten minutes) – some of those people lost their jobs or rental houses as a result. If labelling theory is correct, once labelled as a criminal, these people will find it very hard to get jobs in the future.

Secondly, despite the claims of the right wing governments who implemented them, comparative analysis shows that there are other causes of crime reduction – crime has gone down in cities in the US and the UK without the widespread use of Zero Tolerance techniques – Target Hardening, the increased time people spend online (and thus not on the streets), the declining use of drugs, and even abortion have been suggested as the REAL reasons crime is going down.

Thirdly, Zero Tolerance might be racist in consequence – somewhere in the region of 85% of people dealt with under Zero Tolerance in New York were/ are black or Hispanic.

Fourthly ZT focuses on minor crimes, and street crimes, ignoring the more serious crimes committed by elites, which Marxists see as more harmful. It also does little to address the underlying causes of crime.

Finally, and in conclusion, there is the very real possibility that rather than being about reducing crime, ZT policies are ideological in nature – they allow politicians to claim that they are the ones reducing crime by being ‘tough on crime’, but in reality, crime is going down anyway because of other reasons. Thus maybe ZT has been so widely used because it benefits politicians rather than society as a whole.

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