PhD James O. Finckenauer. Crime and Justice Issues and the Global Pandemic

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There are a whole host of crime and justice issues that are related to and in some cases derived from the present global pandemic presented by Covid-19; too many, in fact, to be addressed in one short paper. The issues range, for example, from the problems presented for policing in attempting to enforce social distancing. What will be the long-term consequences for the all-important police-community relationships from what some, perhaps many, will regard as heavy-handed over enforcement during this period?  To give just one example, in a period of about 6 weeks beginning in March, the New York Police Department arrested 40 people just in Brooklyn for violating social distancing rules.  Of those arrested, 35 were black, four were Hispanic and just one was white. This is a pattern reflected in other US cities as well, and it is one that does not bode well for policing.

From the panoply of possibilities for discussion, I have chosen to focus on three broad areas:

  1. Effects of the virus and various policy measures to contain it on crime and crime rates in general;
  2. Effects of the virus and policy measures on jails and prisons;
  3. Effects especially on different forms of organized crime, and on the behavior of criminal organizations.

Crime and Crime Rates

One idea that has clearly been reinforced by reaction to the pandemic is the extent to which criminals are motivated and influenced by opportunity.  For example, common crimes or what might be generally thought of as street crimes are actually down in most places in the United States and in the world.  As many fewer people are in public areas because they are staying home, there are many fewer potential victims of assault, robbery, rape, theft, etc.  Home burglaries are down because people are at home.  But interestingly, commercial burglaries – break-ins of businesses and commercial establishments – are up because they are closed and unoccupied and thus relatively unguarded.  In New York City, for example, statistics from the New York Police Department show a 28.5 percent decline in major crimes for the month of April.  At the same time, however, they reported that thieves have targeted shuttered businesses in NYC with an increase of 169 percent in commercial burglaries in April.  Looking to the future, crimes and crime rates generally are likely to revert to their normal patterns once the pandemic ebbs.

One troubling crime trend, in particular, is the increase in domestic violence incidents, including child abuse.  For instance, the UN Population Fund Agency predicts 31 million additional cases of “gender-based violence” if the global lockdown continues for 6 months. This increase could occur at the same time that prevention programs and protective care and social services for victims are being reduced because of financial strains on resources. Why the increase in these incidents?  There are two possible explanations. First, spouses and significant others are confined to wherever they are living because of social distancing, job loss, work from home requirements, etc. This means that in relationships that were already problematical with a history of abuse, the abuse victim has even more extensive and intensive exposure to their abuser.  Secondly, the financial and emotional impacts of the pandemic have created tensions and stresses in personal relationships; thus, not only have existing abuse situations been worsened, but new incidents of abuse have likely occurred because of the increased tension and stress.

Jails and Prisons

Places of criminal confinement around the world are fraught with problems even in normal times.  Detained and convicted persons often arrive at a detention facility, a jail, or a prison with pre-existing health problems, only to be confined in overcrowded and generally unhealthy conditions where there is very little health care.  When one introduces Covid-19 into these characteristically poor environments, the already somewhat dismal prospects are made even worse.  In the United States and in many countries in Europe that have been destination countries for immigrants, many arrivals, including children, are being held in less than sanitary conditions in detention centers for indefinite periods of time.  The recommendations of health care experts concerning hygiene, distancing, virus testing, etc. are practically impossible in these settings, which means that at best they constitute a serious health hazard.  This overall experience could have longer-term consequences as policymakers think about what should be the humane nature of their immigration policies.

Jails have long been the stepchild of the criminal justice system.  In part, because they are dependent upon local resources and have to compete with the police and the court system for support, they have typically been underfunded.  They incarcerate just about anyone a particular community wants removed from the streets. Thus, jail inmates include drunks, drug addicts, those with mental illnesses, the homeless, persons awaiting trial, the poor who are unable to pay fines or fees, children and youth when there is no separate youth facility, and lastly, those actually serving jail sentences that can range from months to years. As with everything else, health care in jails is minimal.  When the COVID pandemic strikes a jail, it is a recipe for disaster because none of the public health recommendations are available or could be implemented even if they were available. Both inmates and jail staff are therefore at high risk of illness and death.

Prisons for longer-term inmates are in a somewhat similar but slightly less dire situation. They have both more resources and more space than jails, although many prisons in the US and elsewhere are severely overcrowded.  Health care options available to prisons are limited and of low priority in the competition for scarce public monies.  Thus, they are easily overwhelmed. This is not only true for the inmates but for the correctional personnel as well.  Because they are long term institutions, prisons, especially in the United States confine many elderly inmates who are especially vulnerable to this illness.  As of early May, more than 20,000 prison inmates in the US had been infected, and 295 inmates had died.

One of the ways of addressing these health issues is to expedite the release of prisoners and to seek alternative means of confinement. Each of these policies, however, requires some means of doing risk assessments to best determine who can be safely released and/or maintained in a less secure environment. The results of this forced experiment will have long term implications beyond the pandemic, for both release policies and for utilizing alternative forms of criminal sentencing.

Organized Crime and Crimes that are Organized

So-called traditional forms of organized crime operate within a supply/demand illicit economy.  In other words, they create criminal enterprises that make money from supplying goods and services that are in demand, but that are illegal, are legal but in short supply, or perhaps are not available at all.  Applying this supply/demand principle to the current pandemic, we can ask what is it that is in short supply. The answer? Everything from testing and testing paraphernalia, to personal protective equipment, to ventilators, to treatments, to vaccines. What is of unique interest about these particular goods and services is that their supply does not require a criminal organization with the typical character of organized crime. Instead, a variety of fraudsters and scam artists have been engaging in selling fake cures, hoarding scarce goods, price gouging, using Bitcoin for blackmail, etc. An example comes from a study by the University College of London Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science. Their research shows that the lockdown has increased the risks for older people in particular. Because of their loneliness, anxiety, and stress, the latter’s vulnerability to cybercrime is increased.  Increasing numbers of what the institute calls opportunist criminals are targeting vulnerable individuals online. Specialized gangs especially target older people, who are both spending more time online and are particularly vulnerable to frauds.

Experts indicate that some of the typical criminal activities of organized crime have been disrupted and slowed by the virus.  These include the flow of drugs and other illicit products.  This is due in part to the shut down of much of business and social activity.  But, experts say, the situation is dynamic as groups adapt and seek new markets such as counterfeiting.  One example of such adaptation involves human smuggling.  As closed borders and even greater crackdowns on immigration are implemented, illegal immigration of all kinds becomes even more difficult and risky.  But because there remains a demand in both the smuggling and trafficking markets, there are greater profits to be made.  This combination of higher risk requiring more criminal sophistication, and greater profit, has driven out the lower-level operators and attracted organized crime groups.

A recent report from Europol assesses the future of the organized crime situation as follows:
* The pandemic is likely to have created new opportunities for criminal activities that will continue to be exploited beyond the end of the current crisis. The frauds mentioned above would be examples of that.  Organized crime has shown itself to be adaptable to economic and social change in the past, and is likely to do so again.
* Organized crime groups can be expected to continue to launder money using the on-shore financial system.  Particularly vulnerable will be off-shore jurisdictions with weak anti-money laundering policies. Targets will be shell companies (fake companies created only to provide cover for the movement of money) and the real estate and construction businesses.
* Economic hardship may make communities more receptive to certain offers, such as cheaper counterfeit goods and recruitment to engage in criminal activity.  With respect to possible criminal recruitment, Europol says mafia-type organized crime groups are likely to take advantage of the crisis and persistent economic hardship by recruiting vulnerable young people, and engaging them in the more traditional organized crimes of loan-sharking, extortion and racketeering.
* Economic disparity across Europe (and elsewhere) may make organized crime more socially acceptable as criminal groups may increasingly infiltrate economically weakened communities to portray themselves as providers of work and services.  In addition, there may be an increased social tolerance for counterfeit goods and for labor exploitation. The latter could result in greater pressure for migrant smuggling.
*Organized crime does not occur in isolation and thus the state of the wider economy will play a key role in both the medium and long terms. A crisis, Europol concludes, often results in changes in consumer demand for types of goods and services. This will lead to shifts in criminal markets and in turn will change the face of organized crime.  When combined with the greater community acceptance of organized crime mentioned above, these could be the most insidious long-term criminal effects of the global pandemic.

James O. Finckenauer, PhD
Distinguished Professor Emeritus
Rutgers University