As the United States entered the COVID-19 pandemic, some cities such as St. Louis and Kansas City already struggled with increased violence in under-resourced communities. The ensuing shutdown forced many out of work, and the few community resources – such as boys and girls clubs, community centers, churches, and other agencies designed to help underserved populations – were forced to close. Something else happened during the pandemic; there was a shift in crime patterns.
According to a report from the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, property crimes such as residential burglaries dropped during shelter-in-place orders. More people were at home, and there were fewer opportunities for people to break into empty houses. The same could not be said of commercial burglaries. Research shows that commercial burglaries may have spiked as high at 200% in some areas.
The report further tells us something that we already know. Between the end of May and the end of June, homicide rates increased significantly, as much as 35% in some cities. Aggravated assaults committed with guns also rose in over 17 cities. As we are very aware of how the numbers impact St. Louis city and county, it is important to see that we are not alone in the current uptick of violence during the pandemic.
In response to this national health emergency, which includes community violence, Missouri enacted and proposed reactive and long-term penalties that broadened criminal definitions and extended sentencing minimums. In some cases, sentencing minimums were extended up to five times the original minimum. Another recommended response is increasing offenses for which juveniles must go directly before a judge who will decide whether to try the juvenile as an adult or remand them into juvenile court jurisdiction. According to the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), waivers to adult court do not deter juvenile crime. Additional data indicate that juveniles who are waived into the adult system endure high rates of emotional and physical abuse, and are often exploited by other correctional residents and staff often creating long-term mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court made it abundantly clear that there was a fundamental difference between juveniles under the age of 18 and adults beyond merely knowing right from wrong. The court discussed the implications of the differences in maturity and cognitive differences between juveniles and adults, one of them being the lack of risk analysis performed by juveniles.
More often, juveniles are impulsive, and the level of analysis starts and ends at whether they are going to get caught. Seldom do they weigh the totality of circumstances, such as being tried as an adult and how long of a prison sentence they might get. Making it easier for them to get a longer sentence faster is not going to change the way that juveniles process information.
These long-term and in some cases permanent measures criminalize some of the temporary effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and can produce irreparable harms. The current recommendations continue to destabilize under-resourced communities. Policies such as these compound the negative community impacts currently experienced by marginalized and vulnerable communities caused by previously enacted mass incarceration policies.
Prisons and jails have become the dumping grounds for our problems. The revolving door carceral policies often return people to under-resourced communitieswhere additional barriers exist to finding housing and employment, mental and physical health care, at minimum, after being warehoused in environments where retribution instead of rehabilitation is the fundamental practice.
The reconstruction of current policies and addition of new criminal laws to address the pandemic is a furtherance of criminalizing poverty in the face of a pandemic. The lower-income communities where people face housing, food, and utility instability will be the most impacted by these policy changes. Communities will be further destabilized as traditional and non-traditional family units will be consistently interrupted.
Continuing to deconstruct the traditional and non-traditional family units in communities that already bear the effect of community trauma and must depend on their strength and resourcefulness is counterproductive. That is not to say that a lack of accountability should exist.
Reducing criminal victimization is to address the fundamental issues within a community. Reconsider implementing destructive strategies versus identifying long-term preventative strategies that can help support the community through COVID-19 and become fundamental parts of the community.
What should be considered is placing long-term strategic policies in place identifying long-term preventative strategies. The Cure Violence initiative is a great start and can achieve great success, and the community needs more. It is vital to operate several community-based programs that help meet the fundamental needs of marginalized communities, empower people to continue to engage in community programs, and provide more positive outlets for community youths.
As a society, we cannot incarcerate our way through this, and we should stop trying.
Kenya Brumfield-Young, MLS, MSCJ, is a professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Saint Louis University.