Mandatory Sentencing

I disagree with mandatory sentences in criminal law–and school punishments.   Zachary Christie’s suspension from school for possession of a folding combination knife, fork, and spoon shows why.  Zachary is six years old, in first grade, and was proud to use his new cub scout utensil at lunch.  For violating its no-weapons policy the school punished him with 45 days suspension–45 days!!!!!–and required him to attend its alternative program for disciplinary hard cases during the suspension period.  (Since this story broke a few days ago the school board voted to reduce the punishment for kindergarten and first grade violators to suspension of three to five days.)  The no-weapons policy applied regardless of the possessor’s intent so the school had no choice but to suspend him.  No discretion, which means no application of common sense, was allowed.  Schools defend such policies as being necessary to protect schoolchildren, an objective whose emotional freight crowds out rational discussion of a policy’s merits.  Questioning their wisdom opens one to accusations of callous disregard for the well-being of children, of playing roulette with children’s lives.  Not the way to ingratiate oneself to the neighbors.

Supporters justify zero-tolerance policies with five words,  you can’t be too careful, as if uttering these words were conclusive, irrefutable proof of their position.  I disagree. You can be too careful.  However laudable their goals, zero-tolerance policies sacrifice justice, common sense, wisdom, and human dignity for expediency.  Zero-tolerance is the opposite of thought.  It negates our miraculous ability to reason.  Someone (possibly Mark Twain, but I doubt it) said “to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  To an institution with a zero-tolerance policy, every violation looks like a life-or-death threat on Childhood, or National Security, or whatever the policy is supposed to protect.  The fact that a zero-tolerance policy was instituted becomes justification for applying it without considering whether less rigid policies would better serve the stated goals. One instituted, zero-tolerance policies rarely tolerate modification.

2 Replies to “Mandatory Sentencing”

  1. Chris Gordon

    I have a few thoughts regarding this article. The first is concerning whether the school is private or public. Although the punishment is unwarranted and has no regard for common sense would it make a difference if the school was private or public? Aren’t private schools allowed to punish its students any way it chooses as long as it is within the law? My second thought is that if the school were public would the school even be able to punish Zachary for having the knife? In the 1965 case Sullivan v NY Times the Supreme Court ruled that was no actual malice in the NY Times advertisement targeting the Alabama state police, meaning that there was not any intent to do any harm. I know the Sullivan v NY Times is a matter of speech, but would the same standards not apply for possession? Is it obvious that Zachary had no intent to harm anyone with the knife so why should he be suspended?

    • drandall Post author

      Whether a school is public or private matters if, for example, the school restricts speech or engages in searches. In a public school those activities would raise First and Fourth Amendment issues, respectively, while in a private school they would raise no Constitutional issues. The main point of the post is my objection to mandatory, zero-tolerance punishments, without regard to whether the setting is public or private. I disagree with their wisdom and utility in both contexts. As for you other point, the NY Times v Sullivan actual malice standard has nothing to do with this case. That rule applies to defamation claims brought by public figures.

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