New Perspective on Crime and Punishment Due to COVID-19

Brian P. Dunleavy

Brian P. Dunleavy has been covering health and medical research for more than 25 years, for United Press International and EverydayHealth.com, among other outlets. He is also the former editor of Infectious Disease Special Edition. In addition, he has written on other subjects for Biography.com, History.com, the Village Voice and amNewYork, among others. He holds a master’s degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

As researchers develop ways to assess the effects of the pandemic on criminal activity, a new report documents the impact on those incarcerated.

What happens when the pandemic causes an epidemic?

In truth, that may be an overstatement of the effect of COVID-19 on crime—and those who commit it. However, although crime overall is on the decline in the US since the start of the pandemic (likely because even some criminals are staying home to avoid infection), murders and shootings are rising, according to reports by NPR in July and, more recently, by Vox at the end of September.

The exact role COVID-19 has played in this uptick in violent crime nationally, and globally, remains to be determined, but a new set of assessment tools developed by researchers at University College London could help us better understand the relationship (such as it is). The researchers published their findings on October 14th in PLOS ONE.

“Generally, our work is driven by a main goal: find the best way to reduce crime,” one of the researchers, Hervé Borrion, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Security and Crime Science, UCL Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science, told Contagion®. “Because the answer is both crime- and context-specific, it is important to understand how crime events occur, how routine activities influence crime patterns, how the environment affects offenders’ decisions, etc. To study the effect of COVID-19 stringencies on crime, our community needs a common set of metrics that can facilitate comparison between results from different places.”

Indeed, earlier research by Dr. Borrion et al and others has demonstrated how crime patterns can be affected by regular seasonal factors, including holidays and hours of darkness, but little attention has been given to the effects of factors such as natural disasters, terrorist attacks, international events, and, yes, global pandemics.

To better understand how responses to COVID-19 has affected crime patterns, Borrion and colleagues drew on resilience theory, which considers the ability of systems to adapt and survive in the face of anxiety-inducing events.

They developed a set of quantitative tools, including mathematical models, that can be used to analyze how the pandemic impacts criminal activity within and between cities. In their PLOS ONE-published study, which was designed to assess the accuracy of these tools, the researchers applied them to daily commercial theft data from a large, anonymous city in China that has already resumed routine activities after experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak and related lockdown. They compared crime data for this year (January 1st through April 29th, by which point the city’s lockdown had concluded) to that of the “pre-pandemic period” (from September 2017 through the end of 2019).

They found that commercial theft rates dropped by 64% over an 83-day period earlier this year, before returning to rates that were higher than expected. Borrion and his colleagues believe the “resilience indicators” they developed captures how criminal activity recovers after a disturbance, including a major event—and the COVID-19 pandemic certainly qualifies. Other researchers could apply this toolkit to further investigate the impact of COVID-19 on crime around the world to better anticipate upticks and more effectively address public safety needs, they said.

“Like many organizations, police forces need to know how to organize patrols and perform policing activities in the most efficient and safest possible way,” Borrion said. “We’d love to work with epidemiologists, public health specialists and mathematicians on this topic. In the next stage of our research, we are working with police forces in South America to try to understand crime fluctuations at the neighborhood level. Understanding how compliance to public health measures is distributed in time, space and within the population is key to predict how criminal opportunities are likely to be distributed in the future.”

However, although certain crime trends can be attributed, at least in part, on the COVID-19 pandemic, there are other, more firmly entrenched causes, experts say.

“COVID-19 has highlighted systemic inequities as marginalized groups have borne the highest degree of burden at the same time that they have fought for racial justice across the country,” Michael Anestis, executive director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center and an associate professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health, said in a statement. “Combined, these factors have resulted in a surge in interpersonal gun violence and a fear of a potential increase in suicide. As we look toward solutions to these outcomes—particularly as states make budgetary decisions in response to the financial impact of the pandemic—it is vital that we remember that there is not one single solution, that not every answer will look the same and that many of our most promising tools for preventing gun violence involve investing in communities to provide opportunity and clean and safe space.”