What are Zero Tolerance Laws & Policies? - Definition

Instructor: Melanie Norwood

Melanie has taught several criminal justice courses, holds an MS in Sociology concentrating in Criminal Justice & is completing her Ph.D. in Criminology, Law & Justice.

In this lesson we will define what zero tolerance policies mean in the legal and education systems, the workplace, and prison systems. We will also discuss the criticisms that have mounted over time regarding the use of these policies.

Zero Tolerance

You've probably heard about 'zero tolerance' before. You may even know someone who was suspended or expelled from school as a result of these policies. Maybe it was fair that they received the punishment. Then again, maybe not.

Zero tolerance is rooted in a strong stance based on public opinion towards a specific type of crime or infraction, and it mandates a specified course of action for those infractions. It may take the form of state or federal laws with pre-defined penalties, known as mandatory minimum sentences, or policies in the workplace or school system with strict, outlined consequences for violations.

Zero Tolerance Laws: State and Federal

The vast majority of criminal laws that use the framework of zero tolerance are written regarding driving a vehicle under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. In some states, these laws have been applied or written to include non-motorized vehicles, such as golf carts and bicycles.

Other terms that may be used and that vary by state for these crimes are:

  • DUI: Driving Under the Influence
  • DWI: Driving While Intoxicated
  • OWI: Operating (a motor vehicle) While Intoxicated
  • OUI: Operating (a motor vehicle) Under the Influence

In contrast, most federal zero tolerance laws are in relation to the possession, sale, transport, or theft of guns and rifles. If a convicted felon is found to have a firearm, it is considered a serious crime, particularly if the crimes the individual was convicted of are violent crimes. These crimes generally warrant a minimum sentence of ten years imprisonment or more in some cases.

Zero Tolerance Policies in the Workplace

Employers who utilize zero tolerance policies have deemed specific violations so serious that they are not forgivable, and generally warrant immediate dismissal of the employee. These policies may include termination for:

  • Arriving to work drunk or high
  • Operating a vehicle on behalf of the company while drunk or high
  • Doing drugs or drinking alcohol on company premises
  • Awarding raises or promotions based on bribes or sexual favors
  • Sexual assault of a coworker
  • Theft
  • Disclosure, theft, sale, or other improper handling of protected or confidential information of clients and/or employees

If it is found that an employee did break these rules, there is often some form of investigation conducted within the company first, followed by the termination of the employee.

Zero Tolerance Policies in Education

Many public and private schools have zero tolerance policies. These policies are generally regarding the behavior and actions of students while on school grounds. Fighting on school grounds in many districts may be cause for suspension and/or expulsion, based on these policies. Threatening the lives of students, teachers, and/or school administrators may also be cause for expulsion based on zero tolerance. Bringing or making drugs, drug paraphernalia, weapons, weapon accessories, explosive devices or other specified items onto school grounds may also warrant enforcement of the policies. Private schools may enforce even more rules with zero tolerance for infractions as a result of their exclusive enrollment policies.

Criticisms of Zero Tolerance

With any policy there are criticisms of its application, especially when the policy is applied to situations that it was clearly not designed to handle. A few examples of this would be:

  • A student being expelled for bringing Tylenol to school in Maine;
  • A man arrested for driving a golf cart while intoxicated in California;
  • A South Carolina student suspended for using the term gun on social media in reference to a fictional story about a dinosaur.

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