Fear, crime and justice in pandemic times

Under COVID-19, how our crime situations develop will depend heavily on how our institutions and societies respond, writes Professor Elizabeth Stanley.

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We talk a lot about fear in criminology. More precisely, we reflect on how our political, legal, economic and socio-cultural systems create conditions in which we fear certain people or certain events more than others. Fears are constructed. They determine what we criminalise or who we decide to surveil, police, judge or incarcerate. Fears can provide a cover for crime and justice responses that are racist, discriminatory and undermining of protections.

States and businesses have long been adept in mobilising fears. A catalogue of state and corporate harms—slavery, colonial violence, abuse in ‘care’, mass incarceration, repressive border controls, among other activities—has been readily operationalised, commodified, and legitimised through fears of the ‘other’: the ‘aliens’, the ‘dangerous’ and the ‘monsters’. In settler-colonial New Zealand, this othering has functioned to control and violate Māori in diverse ways.

We have also repeatedly seen that when fears run high (such as following an unusual violent crime) we rush through ‘urgency’ legislation and amp up punitive powers. Policing and security are regularly over-emphasised as responses to wider social problems.

Fear-based responses largely revolve around distancing. We can see this in how our governments, corporations and communities expunge a sense of connection from vilified groups. Distancing is also apparent in the armed patrols of targeted areas, the building of gated communities, the development of new surveillance technologies to control populations, the removal of economic or other supports from those seen as ‘not us’, or the detention of growing numbers of people into carceral spaces.

All these activities demonstrate that institutional and social distancing will often underpin the creation of new or more harms. There are costs to these forms of distancing for everyone, even for those who feel they are gaining protections from them.

Understanding distance is, then, important to how we perceive ‘crimes’ as well as to how we respond to them. But what is perhaps more vital to these perceptions and responses is how we prioritise social closeness.

International and national research repeatedly demonstrates that when we are socially close we are more likely to act with empathy, kindness, and support to those who offend against us. Consider, for example, how people are more likely to seek supports to assist those in their families who cause harm than to demand harsh punishments or incarceration.

Similarly, we know that those of us who are given full information about offenders’ backgrounds and situations are generally less punitive in sentencing demands than others who go without that information. And, more broadly, we see that communities are often less worried about their neighbourhood crime problems than those represented in national pictures, as fears are dissolved by local understandings of people and their relationships. Fears are also minimised when communities come together and act in rehabilitative ways towards those who offend—a point that further underpins our need to decolonise criminal justice.

At the same time, our thinking on closeness has to be nuanced, not least as some crimes, such as ‘family violence’, thrive on personal closeness. They often depend on relational connections and physical proximity. But they are also sustained through social or institutional distance. Other harms, such as online crimes, rely on psychological proximity and are amplified through social indifference (or distance). These types of crimes are regularly hidden from social view and go vastly under-recorded by police and other agencies. Despite their expansive and long-term damaging impacts, they do not usually trigger major public fear responses.

Fear (and its common underpinnings of distance) takes on new meanings when we inhabit a pandemic. People now have great fears about a virus that is unseeable, difficult to control, and spreads through physical closeness.

In crime terms, we are already seeing new global shifts. Amid the ‘lockdowns’ (observe the carceral language), there are decreases in the ‘street crimes’ that traditionally dominate police attention. But there are increases in crimes such as ‘family violence’ that rely on personal connections. To be clear, women and children will bear the brunt of harms and violence during the weeks and months ahead. They will be joined by others—queer people, those with disabilities, minority populations—who are targeted with hate.

How our crime situations develop will depend heavily on how our institutions and societies respond. Will we prioritise distancing (with neglect or escalating punitiveness) or closeness (with health, economic, cultural, educational, and welfare supports)?

Government control responses to COVID-19 have already begun to raise new fears: how, for example, can police ensure new ‘special powers’ will not be abused by officers or disproportionately targeted towards their ‘usual suspects’? And how do we stop the normalisation of these powers? The wider incorporation of ‘emergency’ measures can happen quickly … look at how new Armed Response Teams (cast as a police response to killings by a white supremacist in Christchurch) are now vigorously engaged in Counties Manukau and Waikato.

Fears are apparent in other areas too. For example, it’s clear the pandemic requires different approaches to ensure our justice system prioritises public health. More than ever, we need to avoid holding people in institutions such as prisons that are especially vulnerable to viral contagion and lack meaningful access to health services. A failure to do so will inevitably fuel anxieties and harms across the penal estate as well as infections across all community settings.

All these issues remind us fear is intimately connected to power and privilege. As with climate crisis, the other global emergency of our day, those most close to the dangers are typically those least powerful.

Privileged populations tend to be less fearful of the risks, as they can more readily manage them. Wealth and connections—as well as access to services and protections—help to diminish fear. For some, there could also be a sense these risks are things that happen to other people. They are apart, distanced from the rest of us. How else can we explain Boris Johnson shaking hands with voters or the crowded podiums of US politicians at press events while they simultaneously advised their populations to engage with ‘social distancing’? They think they’re immune, but no one is exempt.

Under COVID-19, our language, connections, economies, and societies are changing. Our fears will ebb and flow through the many months ahead. But if this pandemic is to teach us anything, it is that our structures and societies can only truly flourish by building inclusion, whanaungatanga, social closeness, and solidarity. We need to be attentive to this across many aspects of our social and political lives, but particularly so when we start to consider harms, crimes, and justice.