Public policy debates about discipline and punishment often center around a tension between punitive and rehabilitative ideals. Since the 1970s, there has been a trend in criminal justice away from rehabilitation and toward increasingly retributive forms of punishment. Both state and federal governments began to enact “zero-tolerance” laws in an effort to make up for perceived shortcomings in the criminal justice system. This led to a system where individuals were automatically punished for crimes that previously would have been addressed through more rehabilitative methods. The resulting zero-tolerance regime had a particularly disproportionate impact on the young-adult population being funneled through the criminal justice system.

This same movement has occurred in education. School districts began drafting similar zero-tolerance policies during the “tough on-crime” era in an effort to make up for similarly perceived shortcomings in educational discipline and achievement.6 School-based zero-tolerance policies relied on exclusionary discipline, where students were automatically suspended or expelled for predetermined offenses.7 Instead of being a solution, zero-tolerance laws are often part of the problem. An alternative to zero-tolerance policies is an approach known as restorative justice.