Criminology in a Time of Pandemic

Lesley McAra

Lesley McAra

University of Edinburgh Law School


Welcome to this anniversary edition of the European Society of Criminology newsletter.  I hope that you, your family and friends are safe and well. 

This is my last Presidential message at the end of what has proved a tumultuous year. The global pandemic has impacted almost every facet of our lives, and is likely to have far reaching consequences for education and research.  In this message I am going to offer some reflections on the past twenty years of the ESC, and the challenges which the global pandemic currently poses for theory and method within criminology. The message will conclude with some thoughts about the implications of these challenges for the future of criminology as both an applied and theoretically informed field of enquiry.  

Past Progressive

The ESC was established in 2000 with the objectives of: convocation (bringing scholars together from across Europe and beyond); capacity building (fostering research and training within academic institutions); exchange and cooperation (amongst scholars from Europe and internationally);  and dissemination (of criminological knowledge at the European level) (see: Constitution of the ESC).   It is instructive, however, to read through the early editions of the Society’s newsletter (published for the first time in 2002) and review the themes which framed the first set of conferences in Lausanne, Toledo and Helsinki.  Here there is evidence that European Criminology was viewed by some of the Society’s founding members as a normative project (as well as a methodological and theoretical one).  This is captured in closing lines of Professor Josine Junger-Tas’s  final Presidential Message from 2002:

‘Dear colleagues, these are my thoughts and my hopes for the future. We have made a good start. May we develop a European Society of Criminology that reflects truly European values: those of the Enlightenment – emphasising reason, empiricism, and human rights – and those of social care and support for the losers in our society’.

Her words echo the subject matter of the first ever plenary session at the Lausanne Conference (2001)  namely: ‘Concentrated Disadvantage and Crime’ [1].  And in launching the European Journal of Criminology, its first Editor-in-Chief, David J Smith, argued that key drivers of a European Criminology were not only the heightened political concerns about security and crime control across Europe (particularly in the wake of the September 11th attacks in the United States), but, critically, also the need to find a counterbalance through the promulgation of human rights protocols and conventions and a wider European criminological conversation (Smith 2004).

Our Society has grown exponentially since these early days: with a 250% rise in participants at our annual conferences and a membership now of around 1000.  And as I noted in my first Presidential Message (2019), with this growth has come evidence of increased diversity of subject matter and greater specialisation.  Currently the Society hosts 34 working groups, covering: methods (quantitative and qualitative); pedagogy and careers;  variant ‘criminologies’ (Balkans, cultural, narrative, life-course and developmental);  crime types (drugs, homicide, immigration, atrocity crimes);  and justice (policing, sentencing, prison, juvenile justice);  and much more.  And a number of these groups have made explicit commitments to engage with policy and practice, and bring research evidence to bear on law, process and intervention. Over time, the Journal too has had increased scope and impact –the number of editions per year has been expanded to cope with increased submission rates, and heavy citations of published articles led to the Journal receiving its first ever impact factor.   Our Society has also played a role in building criminological capacity across European jurisdictions, including the provision of fellowships to enable conference participation from postdoctoral or graduate students from a range of Eastern European countries. We also celebrate the contribution of scholars across the life-course through our awards.  These are all developments of which the Society can be justifiably proud and demonstrate, in no small measure, the ways in which the Society has met its core objectives.  But, 20 years on,  whither the normative project?

Present tense

If, as Smith suggests, the first decade of the European criminological project was driven in part by the fall-out from the September 11th terrorist attacks, it would seem that the global pandemic forms yet another critical juncture with profound implications for crime and its control.

Ben Stickel and Marcus Felson (2020) have claimed that the covid-19 pandemic forms the backdrop to largest natural experiment in the history of criminology, with the capacity to test the impact of sequential lockdowns and stay at home orders on the routine activities of populations. Whilst recorded crime has been in long-term decline across many jurisdictions internationally, there is evidence that lockdown and stay at home orders have resulted in further rapid and dramatic drops in crime rates (see for example, Halford et al 2020, Mohler et al 2020, Scottish Government 2020).  However this does not hold for all forms of crime.  Studies internationally have found increases in domestic violence (Boxall et al 2020), cybercrime and fraud (Collier et al 2020), with lockdown exacerbating the risks of child abuse[2]  (Romanou and Belton 2020, Campbell 2020) and creating new opportunities for organised criminal groups to exploit (Europol 2020). 

However, the implications of the pandemic, arguably,  go further than this. Indeed, the impact of the virus reflects a global social order riven with inequalities – death rates are significantly higher amongst the most poor and dispossessed, older people, and those from specific ethnic backgrounds. Silent voices include some of the hardest-to-reach groups such as travelling communities, asylum seekers and migrants, those experiencing homelessness, as well as those living with end-stage illness (McAra 2020). The virus is also exposing a justice gap, with prisons in some jurisdictions becoming hotbeds of virus transmission and, in others, places of isolation and despair, as efforts to prevent infection lead to lockdowns for 23 hours a day, deteriorating prison conditions and rights violations (Gulati et al 2020, Franco-Paredes et al 2020).  The policing of the pandemic also may be impacting disproportionately areas of multiple deprivation, with some international evidence emerging of widespread procedural injustices (Jones 2020, McVie 2020). It is still early days and much more research is needed to track and understand these phenomena. But it is important to acknowledge that covid-19 impacts both situational contexts and adaptations at the individual level,  at the same time as reinforcing the structural contexts and institutional cultural practices which reproduce and intensify social harms and concentrated disadvantage.

Future conditional

The transformations wrought by the global pandemic present us now with the opportunity (and, I would suggest, the imperative) to revisit the Josine Junger-Tas’s founding ambition for the Society.    

The complex and multi-level effects of the pandemic, and their potential for both direct and indirect impacts on crime and justice, demonstrate forcibly the inter-dependencies of the institutional and policy frameworks across Europe and the continued need for criminological enquiry to engage with its counterparts in the fields of health, social care, education, economy, politics and more.  

Whilst the pandemic has highlighted the fragility of extant social orders, critically it has also exposed some fundamentals of human connection – volunteering, grass-roots activism, small acts of kindness and altruism; facets of the human experience at the micro-level that belie the inequalities described above (McAra 2020). Importantly the pandemic too has highlighted the need for global cooperation and speaks to the moral responsibilities of nation states beyond borders as well as to the benefits which a reinvigorated public realm can bring. 

The European Society of Criminology forms an important site of methodological and theoretical crossings, as well as a place of convocation, debate and challenge. As such our community can speak to the twin dynamics of both micro-connectivity and macro-co-operation. But in contributing to recovery and regeneration and in setting an agenda for our third decade, I believe we need to re-engage with a number of normative questions: what are the conditions of a just social order; what promotes social solidarity; what are the structural conditions which support human flourishing; how can human rights discourse come to infuse and transform institutional cultural practices?  As David J Smith so eloquently argued: (2004, p12): ‘scholarship is a constant act of renewal of the collective memories of what has been thought and discovered and a systematic effort to build on it’. 

Concluding remarks

In closing, I would like to thank the members of the European Society for giving me the opportunity to serve as President. It has been a great honour.  My last duty as President, will be to welcome you to our e-conference in September. On the opening evening of the conference I will be chairing a plenary session, with speakers from criminological societies across the globe including: Sandra Walkate, President British Society of Criminology; Dan Nagin, President Elect American Society of Criminology; Tara McGee, President Australian and New Zealand Society of Criminology; and  Shin'ichi Ishizuka, Executive Board Member of the Asian Criminological Society. We will be debating crime, justice and social order in a time of pandemic and the future direction of Criminology.  Join us! 

End note: In my first Presidential Message I reported on a project Lieven Pawels and I were hoping to launch during 2020 about the impacts of European Criminology on policy and practice. Sadly this project too has been delayed by the pandemic.  However,  I hope that we will be able complete it by the end of the Society’s 20th anniversary year and certainly in time to report back in a later newsletter and at our conference in Bucharest 2021.  Please look out for further information about how you can participate!




Boxall, H., Morgan, A., and Brown, R., (2020), The Prevalence of Domestic Violence Among Women during the Covid-19 Pandemic, Statistical Bulletin No. 28, Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology,

Campbell, A. ( 2020), An Increasing Risk of Family Violence during the Covid-19 Pandemic: Strengthening Community Collaborations to Save Lives, Forensic Science International Reports (April), DOI: 10.1016/j.fsir.2020.100089

Collier, B., Horgan, S., Jones, R., Shepherd, L., (2020), The Implications of the Covid-19 Pandemic for Cybercrime Policing in Scotland, The Scottish Institute for Policing Research, Research Evidence in Policing: Pandemics, Issue No. 1

European Society of Criminology, Constitution,

Europol, 2020, Pandemic Profiteering: How Criminals Exploit the Covid-19 Pandemic,

Franco-Paredes, C., Jankousky, K., Schultz, J., Bernfeld, J., Cullen, K., Quan, N., Kon, S., Hotez, P., Henao-Martinez, A., and Krsak, M., (2020), Covid-19 in Jails and Prisons: A Neglected Infection in a Marginalised Population, PLOS, 14 (6), pntd.0008409

Gulati, G., Dunne, C., and Kelly, B., (2020), Prisons and the Covid-19 Pandemic, Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, (January),

Halford, E., Dixon,A., Farrell, G., Malleson, N., and Tilley, N., (2020),  Crime and Coronavirus: Social Distancing, Lockdown, and the Mobility Elasticity of Crime, Nature Public Health Emergency Collection, CrimeSci 9 (1): 11, doi: 10.1186/s40163-020-00121-w

Jones, D., (2020), The Potential Impacts of Pandemic Policing on Police Legitimacy: Planning Past the Covid-19 Crisis, Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice, 14 (3) 579-586,

Junger-Tas, J. (2002), Presidential Message, Newsletter Issue 3,

McAra, L. (2020), Future Present,

McVie, S. (2020),    Data report on Police Use of Fixed Penalty Notices under the Coronavirus Regulations in Scotland, Scottish Centre for Administrative Data Research and Understanding Inequalities

Mohler, G., Bertozzi, L.,Carter, J., Short, M., Sledge, D., Tita Craig, G., Uchida, C., Brantingham, J., (2020), Impact of Social Distancing during Covid-19 Pandemic on Crime in Los Angeles and Inianapolis, Journal of Criminal Justice, 68 (May-June)

Romano, E. and Belton, E. (2020), Isolated and Struggling: Social Isolation and the Risk of Child Maltreatment, in Lockdown and Beyond,  NSPCC Evidence Team

Scottish Government,  (2020), Recorded Crime in Scotland: April 2020,

Smith, D.J. (2004), Criminology and the Wider Europe, European Journal of Criminology, 1(1) p 5-15

Stickel, B. and  Felson, M., (2020), Crime Rates in a Pandemic: The Largest Criminological Experiment in History, American Journal of Criminal Justice, 16 (1): 1-12, doi: 20.1007/s12103-020-09546-0

[1] Speakers - Anthony Bottoms, Manuel Eisner, and Robert Sampson;  with Per-Olof Wikström in the chair.

[2] Romanou and Belton 2020, in particular, attribute this to a combination of stressed caregivers, reduction in child protection services, and increased exposure to abusers within the home or online.