The coronavirus pandemic is a public health issue, but it is also a justice issue. It is causing a great deal of harm, suffering and death; the harm is not falling equally, and to some extent it is preventable. In the UK, the risk of dying from COVID-19 is higher for those who are older, male, live in deprived communities, or are from Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic backgrounds (Public Health England, 2020). People are also at increased risk of contracting the virus if they work in occupations that put them on the ‘front line’, including medical professionals, supermarket workers, teachers, refuse collectors, and a range of other jobs. Many people working in these occupations are on low wages. The inequity of the harm creates a need to consider this from a justice perspective.
The coronavirus and related lockdown have also effectively suspended some aspects of the criminal justice system. Court business in Scotland effectively stopped during the lockdown, although it is now beginning to restart. We’ve also seen a significant drop in crime, most notably in relation to crimes such as serious assault and house-breaking. However, some other types of crime may be increasing, such as fraud, domestic violence (Brooks-Hay, Burman, & Bradley, 2020), harms against children, and some forms of criminal activity committed online.
COVID-19 presents a particular risk for people in prisons (Jardine, 2020). Due to the suspension of court business, more people are not being sent to prison, yet people are still being released from prison, so the prison population is decreasing. There are also some emergency measures which allow the early release of some categories of prisoners. The number of people in Scottish prisoners has dropped by approximately 15%, from 8,094 in mid-March 2020 to 6,869 near the end of May; the number of women in prison decreased by about a third during this period, from 395 to 264. Given that the spread of the virus within prisons is particularly dangerous, there is good reason to try to reduce the prison population further (Nowotny, Bailey, Omori, & Brinkley-Rubinstein, 2020).
Community sentences are also significantly affected (McNeill, 2020). For example, unpaid work is effectively suspended during the lockdown, and the time periods for completing these sentences has been extended. Physical distancing has also changed the nature of the supervision of people on community sentences. For instance, some of the therapeutic interventions are more difficult to provide without face-to-face contact, meaning that support has shifted more towards supervision than targeted interventions for addressing offending behaviour, although some face-to-face meetings are still going ahead where the risks of offending are particularly high. The pandemic also appears to be leading towards a global recession. In the context of mass job losses, one of the main sanctions for criminal behaviour – the monetary fine – is a less desirable or socially just response.
So, with many aspects of the criminal justice process changed or halted, with a need to reduce the prison population, a pause on court business, challenges in delivering community sentences, and the undesirability of monetary fines, where does this leave us? Many argue that ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’ With court cases severely delayed, this creates significant problems for meeting people’s justice needs. One potential approach is restorative justice. One way of defining restorative justice is as a justice mechanism (Daly, 2016) that facilitates safe communication between someone who has committed an offence and the person harmed by that offence, for the purposes of asking and answering questions, discussing and deciding how to make amends, supporting people to address the harm, and making plans for avoiding the occurrence of similar harm in the future (Kirkwood, 2018). While these processes normally take place face-to-face, it may be possible to facilitate such processes using online methods if physical distancing measure remain in place. This may be attractive to at least some people, especially if the alternative is either no formal response or one that is severely delayed.
Restorative justice experts across Europe recently discussed the potential of restorative justice in response to and in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. The potential included the use of restorative justice facilitated online, the use of restorative approaches to breaches of lockdown restrictions, and the possibility of restorative practices being used more widely. For example, people who have lost loved ones may find processing grief is very difficult, or at least changed, by the current situation, and restorative processes may be of value to them. This includes practices such as Circles, whereby people are given an opportunity to speak within a group, one at a time and uninterrupted, to shared their views and feelings.
Given that a number of deaths appear to be preventable, it raises questions around responsibility, and such discussions with relevant professionals and official representatives may be particularly valuable to family members of those who have died. Medical professionals and other key workers are also putting themselves at great risk, and having to make difficult decisions, therefore they may have needs that could benefit from restorative practices, helping to process difficult feelings and decisions. The use of restorative practices in relation to medical intervention can be challenging, but can also bring a lot of value to professionals and members of the public (Wailling, Marshall, & Wilkinson, 2019). There could even be a need for a national or even international conversation about the coronavirus, about issues of justice, and seeking to address these needs. The quality of such processes online might not be as high as when they are delivered face-to-face; however, some of the safety concerns may be easier to manage if people don’t actually need to meet.
Crime can be thought of as a public health issue (Middleton, 1998). For instance, violence and drug misuse can be seen as issues that harm populations, and therefore the responses should be holistic, taking a preventative approach, rather than only focusing on blame and punishment. However, public health can also be seen as a justice issue. The harm that is caused by the pandemic creates a range of justice needs that ought to be addressed, and restorative justice offers a perspective for understanding and responding to some of these needs.
Dr Steve Kirkwood
Senior Lecturer in Social Work (The University of Edinburgh)
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Daly, K. (2016). What is Restorative Justice? Fresh Answers to a Vexed Question. Victims and Offenders, 11(1), 9–29. https://doi.org/10.1080/15564886.2015.1107797
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