Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Please Be Tolerant of Zero Tolerance

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Please Be Tolerant of Zero Tolerance

Article excerpt

Does "zero tolerance" work or not? In the House of Commons this week, Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, seemed to distance himself from the idea, in the light of a new research summary compiled by his department. Thus he stirred expectations that yet another great hope for reducing crime was about to be dashed.

This is to misunderstand both Straw and zero tolerance. Like his predecessor, Straw has a legal training; unlike Michael Howard, he does not always behave as though addressing a gullible and rather stupid jury. Simplicities such as "prison works" may do for a Tory party conference; they will not do as the basis of Home Office policy. The present Home Secretary understands that crime reduction depends upon a whole variety of different policies. "Nothing works", the view that Howard inherited, is just as wrong as "prison works". But "nothing works alone" gets it absolutely right.

The answer, then, is that zero tolerance works, provided it is used alongside other policing techniques. The idea is that by dealing consistently and reliably with quite minor offences - broken windows, uprooted plants, small-scale fisticuffs - the police improve their chances of dealing with more serious crime. In effect, the police regain control of the streets and increase the community's confidence in their ability to keep order. People are then more willing to report crime, to offer information to the police and to take measures to protect themselves. (What's the point of putting on stronger locks if you think they are going to be vandalised next day?)

The danger with this approach is that, used on its own, it simply increases hostility between the police and young people, who are the most likely targets of attempts to clamp down on misbehaviour in the streets. …

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