A national COVID-19 research program is needed not only because of its importance in helping to shape effective policy responses to the current version of the coronavirus pandemic, but because it has become clear that it could well change its form in future versions and other pandemics can reasonably be expected to arrive in the future, and the research program can help provide the understanding and insights that are important and necessary for dealing with the pandemic complexities. Toward this end, this introductory discussion identifies some primary concepts central to the development of a potential future pandemic crime and justice research agenda to orient and synthesize directly related forthcoming inquiry toward rigorous scientific discovery and optimal applied practice..
National research programs can be consequential to intelligent policy and practice decisions. In the present case, there is a strong pragmatic and even
if not moral premium on objective science and an empirical knowledge base so that official actions that respond to the virus are not grounded in ideology, partisanship, or selfish economic interests. A research program’s conceptual framework sets scope conditions and an orienting strategy that signals, if not directs, the tone of inquiry, actual issues researched, and related attributed significance. Theoretical or national research programs are infrequent in academic criminology and criminal justice with more commentary than actual examples (see Miller, Gibson, & Byrd, 2008). Rather than resembling more formal theoretical research programs composed of set core and supporting maxims which must be falsifiable (Berger & Zelditch, 1993) as in related disciplines, criminology and criminal justice research has more loosely employed theoretical integration toward research to establish a knowledge base from which to identify, synthesize, and analyze applied issues and challenges.
Justice themed research programs have emphasized the actionable implications of findings from interlocking outcome studies such as Simpson and Sell’s series of evaluation research (1982) on the Drug Abuse Reporting Program and the National Institute of Mental Health research agenda organized around conceptual cores of development, classification, and prevention – essentially domains for research conceptualization and design (Reiss & Price, 1996). Additionally, Huizinga et al., (1995) crafted a research agenda to disentangle the characteristics and arrest histories of chronic delinquents through a typology approach (risk factors identification, violence prediction, developmental pathways interactive effects). More recently, a proposed national research agenda for treatment courts was grounded in inter-twined evidence-based practice, research-practitioner partnership, and mixed-method concepts (Miller et al., 2019). Regardless of subject matter, a commonality across these research programs is specification of core concepts that, collectively, define active and future research questions and agendas.
The virus presents opportunities for real-world theory tests and examination of the justice apparatus under its distinctive conditions, partly to contrast it with otherwise normal conditions and potentially to anticipate what might happen in other pandemic conditions. Leading criminological theories (e.g., routine activities theory, deterrence and rational choice theories, self-control theory, social disorganization, cultural transmission, and social learning perspectives) are of clear relevance to a broad range of both crime and justice COVID related topics. While active justice program evaluations have been compromised by virus-induced disruption of offender treatment protocols indicating program differentiation, linking the virus and criminal justice responses creates natural experiment conditions with comparison groups that otherwise would be impossible to construct - such as offenders receiving early release from incarceration. Although much is yet to be determined regarding the dynamic nature of the virus and findings from virus-related research, a conceptual framework should facilitate discourse and inquiry on the links between the virus and crime and the justice responses.
The two foremost focal concepts of the COVID-19 pandemic are contagion and containment. These interrelated ideas posit arenas of case confirmation and reaction around the objective of minimizing contagion and propagation. Shelter-in-place epitomizes the national response of social distancing - a universal mandate of separation, for everyone to stay at home, and prohibition of aggregation of more than a specified number of people (but these vary across and even within states) - thereby canceling sporting events and entertainment events, shutting down restaurants, all “non-essential” businesses, and meetings of all sorts. Stay-home policies and closing of significant portions of the economy has spiked unemployment, social isolation, and competition for basic needs while forcing home schooling and virtual workplaces. Drastically altered daily life due to virus rules and compliance enforcement, ranging from response to defiance of stay-at-home orders and restrictions on public gatherings, and punishment for assault of medical workers usually through coughing, spitting, or sneezing. All these have fostered anomalous responses presenting a wide array of situational and global consequences that raise important research questions regarding individual and programmatic effects..
Containment measures, then, are strategies implemented as social ordinances designed to limit transmission of the virus among individuals. There is, unsurprisingly, a great deal of variation in the ways in which different countries, states, and cities have approached the pandemic and the types of containment measures they have employed, and then the timing and type of relief from those measures as the viruses impacts are diminished. Lack of a unified national strategy contributes to the considerable cross-state variation in the initiation and growth patterns of virus severity and of deaths in the United States and in regional variations in virus severity, but without question has resulted in containment measures and their alleviation that vary wildly from state to state and even within states as they and their citizenry vary in their trade-offs between economic recovery and aversion.
Despite containment measures differences, each jurisdiction’s response has involved some combination of travel restrictions and border controls, quarantine requirements, social isolation and distancing requirements, and the large-scale closure of various services, business, and educational facilities. While the primary concern of government has been to minimize the health impacts of COVID-19, attention has also turned to the other effects of the pandemic. Government and regulatory interventions include stringent domestic and international travel restrictions and
now a raft of phased stay-at-home and changing social distancing regulations. The scale of these containment measures has left criminologists wondering what impact this will have on various kinds of crime throughout the remainder of the virus and beyond.
Although the federal government has guided social distancing recommendations through semi-regular Centers for Disease Control briefings that have made public health officials Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx household names, it has been left to states and cities to implement measures on when to close and when to open different places of business, schools, and public events and local law enforcement agencies to effect compliance. Policy choices can both stimulate or inhibit criminal activity and, in doing so, will thereby generate both intended and unintended consequences, and those effects compared to pre-virus crime should be one focus of future research. Since the virus is not only ongoing but currently spiking in almost half of the states, it is now certain that it will be with us for some time, thereby accentuating the need for empirically informed policy guidance as well as providing the opportunity to develop that guidance.