Tulane VISTA Blog

Fighting Poverty with Passion

Our Obsession with Punishment Part II: Zero Tolerance for Zero Tolerance

Tom Zolot serves at the Center for Restorative Approaches

Tom Zolot serves at the Center for Restorative Approaches

I don’t understand our obsession with punishment. Like a carpenter with only a hammer, every problem becomes a nail; so punishment becomes the right tool for every problem when it’s the only tool at hand.  Zero tolerance policies are those which have automatic punishments associated with infractions regardless of circumstances.

I have no patience for folks that can’t be patient, especially with youth.  We are the adults and it’s our role to have the patient, more intelligent perspective for our young people.  This is even more important when they are being deviant.  Worse yet is if we have policies that forbid patience, forbid understanding. Zero tolerance policies are exactly this.   It is the apex of “getting tough on crime” and this bureaucratically restricts discretion.

Zero-tolerance and mandatory sentencing and mandatory arrest policies…in what scenarios do we not want human judgement?  These rules restrict us to set punishments.  They eliminate the person in charge from the process. Administrators and authorities follow rules and regulations and allow themselves to be removed from the process.

In what scenarios do we not want a compassionate adult taking all factors into account? I affirm that violations must receive response.  I affirm that youth must be taught lessons about responsibility and interconnectedness but I want trained, compassionate adults making those judgments.  It seems that we tie ourselves to the illusions of policies and statutes and then these things govern us more than merely being tools at our disposal.

 Tied Hands

In seeking fairness we have lamed ourselves.  We create rules which prevent the opportunities for unique responses to individual deviance and streamline our youth and social deviants straight into prisons and painful punitive cycles.  And for what? To be more efficient? Vengeance? We need to take more time and implement known and better alternatives. Doing it right and repairing harm might take awhile, but its a hell of a lot shorter than 20 to life.

As long as humans judge other humans, there will be some injustice, but we must create processes and rules that enable us to teach our children rather than forcing us into harming them.  We must at least leave space for compassion to grow.

Flower out of concrete



This entry was posted on October 22, 2014 by in VISTA Field Reports.



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