We are amidst a viral pandemic, one that has affected many lives including my own. People everywhere are having to temporarily restructure their lives in the hopes that social distancing is enough to fight against this invisible, invasive monster. Aside from the death toll that continues to rise, the most heart wrenching effects of the policies implemented in response to COVID-19 are those most felt by the lower class. With unemployment and joblessness increasing coupled with the unpredictability of this global crisis, crime too will rise. Many are worried that our public health system and medical facilities are ill-prepared to take on COVID-19 as it rapidly sweeps through our nation, but is our correctional system prepared for what may be on the horizon?
On Thursday April 2nd, 2020, an article by Jeff Cox titled "US weekly jobless claims double to 6.6 million" was published on CNBC's website (Cox, 2020). The article highlights that over a two-week period, there have been approximately 10 million who have applied for unemployment as a result of America's economic shutdown due to the coronavirus (Cox, 2020). Cox also quotes Seema Shah, chief strategist at Principal Global Investors, who states that, with more states issuing lockdown ordinances, the nation will continue to experience an increase in the unemployment rate, something initially unexpected and devastating (Cox, 2020).
As is evident by Jeff Cox's article, the issue of unemployment grows increasingly more prevalent as we continue to face changes brought on by COVID-19. While it is obvious that unemployment and its associated socio-economic stressors have already impacted many Americans, I am going to discuss how the increase in joblessness will lead to higher crime rates. That effect will be most felt in areas already experiencing problems, such as poverty, unstable work, residential turnover/instability, etc. To begin, I want to make the assertion that crime is a symptom of deeper, underlying social and economic problems. To reduce crime, one must focus on reducing those underlying issues.
Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay, two very influential scholars in criminology, focus on how social and environmental factors may influence human behavior (Lersch & Hart, 2015, 47). Their research found that inner-city zones had high crime rates not because of the types of people who lived there, but because of frequent residential turnover that led to concentrated poverty, residential instability and community heterogeneity (Lersch & Hart, 2015, 45-55). Those three factors ultimately led to social disorganization or community instability, creating neighborhoods with weak informal social controls and leading to an increase in criminal behavior (Lersch & Hart, 2015, 45-55).
Other scholars have made the same connection between socio-economic factors and crime. Elijah Anderson focuses on inner-city, black, ghetto neighborhoods and illustrates in his 'Code of the Streets' that a person's inclination towards violence comes from the circumstances of life (Anderson, 1994). This could be personified in a lack of jobs with living wage, the stigma of race, social alienation resulting from drug use and/or trafficking, and a lack of hope for the future. William Julius Wilson specifically talks about joblessness in poor neighborhoods, which causes what he termed 'ghetto-related behavior' (Wilson, 1996). Ghetto-related behavior is defined as any behavior that society stereotypically labels as 'ghetto,' including violence, gang activity, and drug use/selling. Wilson clearly cites that when faced with a decline in job opportunities, there is an increase in a person's incentive to sell drugs or to use, adapting to their situation the only way they know how (Wilson, 1996). Hence my assertion that crime is a symptom of underlying social and economic problems. In Wilson's research, he links deterioration of inner-city neighborhoods to the growth of the inner-city drug industry (Wilson, 1996). In a docu-series "The Epidemic: Addiction and Deindustrialization", Peter Saarsgard follows the deterioration of Dayton, Ohio. He connects opioid addiction and other criminal behavior to deindustrialization and middle America's economic decline (Read, et. al., 2016).
There are many people who may argue against what I and the above scholars are arguing to be a causal link. They may claim that the crime rate has no link to social or economic factors and that crime is merely a result of ill-informed decisions or acts carried out by unstable people. However, a study conducted in Alabama in 2005, shows that socio-economic factors, including, most notably, unemployment, greatly influence the crime trend (Bukenya, 2005). More recently, a study conducted in 2014 had similar results, providing clear evidence that steady, stable employment corresponds to a reduction in crime, especially property crimes like robbery and burglary (Uggen & Shannon, 2014).
Before this global pandemic even started, communities experiencing socio-economic problems such as high rates of unemployment and poverty were already reporting high levels of crime. The research clearly shows a causal link between those underlying issues and criminal behavior. It is my stance that America's criminal justice system and correctional system need to prepare themselves. With record-breaking bouts of joblessness, it is only a matter of time before we see corresponding spikes in crime rates across the nation. It seems to me that COVID-19 is just getting started.Linda N. Fipps, criminal justice major at the University of South Carolina