Explaining the Cultural and Symbolic Resonance of Zero Tolerance in Contemporary Criminal Justice

Karim Ismaili, St. John's University

Zero tolerance has been described as a "popular slogan for politicians talking tough" (Dixon, 2000). It is also a slogan with international advocates. In addition to the United States, politicians from Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and South Africa have praised the aggressive policing strategy. While this is a testament to the ease with which ideas diffuse between nations in the contemporary world (see Best, 2001), it does not explain why this particular idea is so popular. Nor does it explain why zero tolerance animated so many in the mid to late 1990's. In order to adequately answer these questions, it is ijmportant to place zero tolerance in a wider social, political and economic context. As this paper will argue, zero tolerance resonates in contemporary culture because it symbolizes a variety of tensions and anxieties found in late modern society. These anxieties are revealed through the often "volatile and contradictory" (Garland, 1996; O'Malley, 1999) politics of law and order; through the routine scrutiny of "marginal" populations in society; and through the high degree of public tolerance for both of these developments. Recent research suggests that the rise of free-market 'neo-liberalism' and social conservatism in Western industrialized democracies provides an important backdrop against which these anxieties emerge (Garland, 2001; McArdle and Erzen, 2001; O'Malley, 1999). Imbued with meaning and populist appeal, it is the idea of zero tolerance, along with its cultural and symbolic resonance in contemporary criminal justice, that requires explanation.

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Updated 05/20/2006