Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Zero Tolerance Makes Zero Sense

It turns out that in my post on Mason's school closings, I was right about two things: first, that the culprits were Mason students, and second, that law enforcement officials would over-react when they found someone they thought was responsible.

I was wrong, though, about the charges that could be brought: three Mason juveniles have been charged with disrupting public services, a fourth-degree felony. (The charge fits; this link will take you to the relevant statute.)

There was a time, not so long ago, when something like this would have been handled entirely by school officials. But not anymore. Zero tolerance means that we have to criminalize every act that bothers us, all the time. We also see this phenomenon in adult court all the time: sit in a municipal courtroom on any day and you're likely to see at least one person charged with "telephone harassment" because he or she said something (or texted something) to a significant other that the significant other didn't like. Is that really how we want to use the criminal courts' time?

So for a prank that caused a snow day but no permanent damage, three teenagers might be labeled convicted felons. (And for those who think juvenile crimes don't matter after you turn 18, you're sadly mistaken.)

And just to preempt any crazy commenters: I don't care that these kids are (probably) white and (obviously) suburban. If these were three kids from Hughes High School, I'd be advocating the same thing: let the school system handle it.

If I were in charge of the universe, I'd order these kids to serve a long school suspension--one day shy of whatever would cause them to fail every class for attendance reasons. I'd make them do a massive amount of community service, and then write some heinously long essay afterward on what they'd done and what they'd learned. And I'd probably ban them from any non-academic extracurricular activity for the rest of this year and all of next.

School discipline will impact the kids' ability to get into college. But a felony record? That will hamper them for years to come. It's unfortunate that our society has decided to handle so many situations by resorting to the criminal justice system. And I hope that at some point prior to the resolution of these cases, cooler heads will prevail.

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