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COVID-19’s Effects on Crime Reporting and Case Management

COVID-19’s Effects on Crime Reporting and Case Management

Catie Barry

With millions of people out of work due to government-mandated stay-at-home orders, it leaves the streets seemingly much more riddled with crime. With websites such as Time, Forbes and PBS reporting a significant decrease in crime due to the pandemic, it leaves the public believing that a decrease in social interaction correlates directly with a decrease in crime. However, something to keep in mind that a decrease in arrests and reported crime does not necessarily mean a decrease in crime. For example, crimes that are typically reported by mandated reporters rather than the victim themselves; such as child abuse and domestic violence, it can be logically assumed these incidents are occurring more often due to quarantine and added stress during this national crisis. Also, we must take into consideration the decrease in policing of the streets due to a large percentage of the police force themselves having to quarantine due to being diagnosed with the coronavirus or just being exposed to it, like the rest of the population. With this in mind, one can deduce that with a decrease in policing, there is a decrease in arrests. Again, one can not conclude this means there is a decrease in crime, there is just a decrease in arrests due to law enforcement resources. In fact, murders and commercial burglaries are on the rise since the start of the pandemic in major cities, especially in NYC.

This mindset is important to maintain when approaching all of our data, that we are only dealing with crimes that have been reported; and terrorist activity and hate crimes have happened and will continue to take place without ever being reported to the police.

My final project for the Prosecution Project has been working on case updates; we have attempted to integrate a method involving Google Calendar into the manual which will ultimately help reduce the backlog of cases in our Pending Cases tab.

In order to figure out a way to fix our backlog issue within pending cases, we have to figure out why it is a problem in the first place. The four most common explanations are 1) the fact that they are old court cases where the majority of the documents are probably in paper format at the court where the case was filed; 2) they are sealed documents or part of a closed hearing; 3) we as researchers are doing an insufficient job when trying to receive information from different data formats or; 4) individual state courts are inconsistent about providing online access to records.

Michael J. Jensen drew attention to the third point in his book Theory and Methods in Political Science, he explained “digital data are often housed in online spaces which can be accessed, either openly, by anyone, or once a researcher has received special permission. In addition, the data obtained often comes with restrictions on the terms of service which do not always conform to standard practices of scientific research…there are four common ways in which researchers obtain digital data, whether the data is administrative or relatively unstructured social media. These comprise text formatted with extensible markup language (XML), via an API, web crawling and web scraping” (310). Our project mainly deals with web crawling and scraping, possibly attempting to integrate the use of the other 2 methods would benefit our project— however, our current methods have proved pretty effective and it seems the others require more computer science knowledge which many of the members of the project lack.

Cases from the 1990s in the Pending Cases tab that despite hours of research in PACER and exploring almost every corner of Google, have proved very difficult to locate any case updates on, probably fall into the first category. Especially considering the clause in the sixth amendment which ensures all Americans the right to a speedy trial, we can assume that these cases are probably documented on paper form rather than online.

I want to draw attention to the fourth reason brought up as to why court records prove hard to locate: individual state courts are inconsistent about providing online access to records. I was curious as to how COVID-19 would affect both federal and state case management and case tracking, which directly affects projects such as ours. I was able to gain some insight from my father, who is the chief clerk of the New York City Criminal Court on this particular issue, which I thought would be especially relevant taking into account New York City is considering it is the most infected city in the entire world right now. He told me, “The virus has presented many challenges for the courts especially in trying to protect their employees”. He further explained how most of the employees are not asked to come into work, the courts are doing virtual arraignments and special applications, but all trials have been delayed and little to no sentencing is being done (most prisons aren’t even accepting new inmates). When asked about how coronavirus would affect a project such as ours, he said “most case management systems are not being updated, or if they are, very infrequently… if you went into WebCrim right now (the New York State Courts website which provides information on criminal cases with future appearance dates), the information you would see would most likely be incorrect, both the courts and the defendant themselves don’t know when they are going to be scheduled to come back”. He explained to me that there simply is not enough staff to update cases on a regular basis. Our project must keep short-staffed courts in mind when going forward and attempting to update cases. Every place of work, every institution and every person is struggling in some aspect due to the pandemic; and as researchers, the best we can do is be patient and understanding while still doing our best to ensure justice is being met.

Works Cited

Jensen, Michael J. “Big Data: Methods for Collection and Analysis.” In Theory and Methods in Political Science, edited by Vivien Lowndes, David Marsh, and Gerry Stoker, 4th ed., 306–20. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2018.

Abramson, Ashley. “How COVID-19 May Increase Domestic Violence and Child Abuse.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, www.apa.org/topics/covid-19/domestic-violence-child-abuse.

Coyne, Marley. “Crime Rates Across U.S. Drop Amid The Coronavirus Pandemic.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 11 Apr. 2020, www.forbes.com/sites/marleycoyne/2020/04/11/crime-rates-across-us-drop-amid-the-coronavirus-pandemic/.

Lederer, Edith M. “Crime Drops Around the World as COVID-19 Keeps People Inside.” Time, Time, 11 Apr. 2020, time.com/5819507/crime-drop-coronavirus/.

NBC. “Uptick in Murders and Burglaries Driving Crime in NYC During COVID-19 Pandemic: NYPD.” NBC New York, NBC New York, 4 May 2020, www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/crime-in-nyc-continues-to-plummet-amid-covid-19-but-uptick-in-murders-and-burglaries-seen/2401556/.

Nolan, Tom. “What Policing during the Pandemic Reveals about Crime Rates and Arrests.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 15 Apr. 2020, www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/what-policing-during-the-pandemic-reveals-about-crime-rates-and-arrests.

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