How will coronavirus-related closures and quarantines affect crime rates?

Plus, working from home and weight gain, what colleges are doing with dorm and dining money, great work from student journalists and more

March 23, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing about journalism and coronavirus, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

Will COVID-19 lead to a rise or a fall in crime?

I started looking into this question with the thought that we might see crime rates go down if people are at home to protect their stuff. It turns out, the opposite may be true. 

Fast Company reports:

“According to a new study of 1 million laid-off Norwegians over 15 years, out-of-work people commit 60% more property crimes (such as theft, shoplifting, burglary, and vandalism) in the year after losing work and have 20% more criminal charges than when employed.”

Before we draw too much from that study, there are lots of variables to consider. The first is that it is Norway, not wherever you live outside of Norway. A second factor is that the study didn’t look at millions of people who are stuck at home due to a pandemic. But the story says that a combination of frustration, need and free time mix together to increase crime rates when people are out of work.

The study’s origins in Norway may actually be more useful than they seem because Norway’s social services system provides a greater safety net than most other countries for people who lose their jobs, meaning the impact of being laid off there could be less than where you are.

You may also see a lower crime and arrest rate in the weeks ahead because police may be purposefully not making as many arrests. Police want to keep people out of jails, where viruses spread like wildfire and cause even more problems. And some departments, like Philadelphia’s, have decided not to arrest people on charges like narcotics, theft, burglary and vandalism. You have to wonder whether a more relaxed justice system will encourage more crime.

Denver police are taking a similar position and not sending police to low-level crime calls in order to reduce person-to-person contact between officers and the public.

The police there are “encouraging people to report crimes online if they don’t require an immediate response and if no one is in danger,” Elise Schmelzer reported for The Denver Post. “The departments can then follow up with a phone call without risking exposure of officers or the person making the complaint to the virus. Aurora police leadership said they would not send officers to a call unless there is still a crime in progress or it’s a serious offense.”

So I think some of the angles you could consider are:

  • When people lose their paychecks, do they turn to crime more often?
  • When people are at home more, does that deter crime?
  • Will crime rates fall when police aren’t charging criminals the same way they used to?

Does working from home lead to weight gain?

This may be just me talking to myself here, but I see this “working from home while the gym is closed” thing as an invitation to pack on some unneeded pounds.

Australian news site Nine.com.au asked an expert if working from home leads to weight gain.

“People who work from home are at a greater risk of obesity and diabetes because there is a significant decrease in physical activity,” psychologist A.J. Marsden of America’s Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida, told them.

Dietician Susie Burrell is quoted in the same article as saying that the availability of food is directly related to how much you eat. When food is freely available at home, you might eat more.

Men’s Journal has advice for those who are new to working from home.

Wear pants with a tight waistband. If you always have a stretchy waistband you might not notice it is stretching.

Ditch the goodies at home. It is hard enough to ignore the cookies people bring to work but when they are your cookies, you are a goner.

Eat lunch. People who work at home might get busy and not each lunch then really chow down on a big supper. Spread smart snacks throughout the day.

Make your workspace a “no-eating” zone. Would you eat less if you could not sit at the computer and snack while you type?

The Work at Home Woman blog has another really good idea. Even when you work at home, “pack your lunch.” It will be harder to overeat if you actually pack your food for the day in a lunch bag like you do when you go to the office.

College students are dumping valuable stuff in a hurry

I am hearing from college students that they are being told to move out in a hurry, so they are pitching an amazing amount of usable stuff that they cannot move. From flat-screen TVs to tons of clothes, the dumpsters are filling up. In ordinary times, charities collect what students don’t want to move at the end of a semester.

What happens to housing, tuition, activity and meal fees?

Colleges and universities are calculating how much of a refund or credit they will offer to students who are being forced to move out of dorms and forfeit meal plans. The most common trend I have seen is for schools to offer credits or refunds on “a pro-rated basis.”

As an example, the Athens Banner-Herald breaks down what this means at the University of Georgia:

For most fees, the refunds are 46% of the fee amount — not much more than $100 for most students. But refunds for students in UGA dorms and on meal plans will be much larger.

Students living in UGA residence halls can also get about half what they paid to live in the dorms — between roughly $3,000 to $4,000 per semester, depending on the hall.

Students on meal plans will get similar refunds of 46% of the costs, between about $1,900 and $2,100.

Other schools, like the University of Arkansas, said they have not yet made a decision about whether or how to handle reimbursements. And no wonder. Universities that are already running on tight budgets said they will be devasted if they have to issue refunds.

Inside Higher Ed reported:

But for colleges relying on such fees — called auxiliary fees — to support their operating revenue, refunds could be devastating.

“Every residential college and university in America relies on that auxiliary revenue stream. It is baked into the budget,” W. Joseph King, president of Lyon College and co-author of How to Run a College, said in an email. “Significant refunds will cause real problems at many institutions. It will just be worse for those with tighter or deficit budgets.”

And Inside Higher Ed pointed to another problem ahead. If schools cannot allow prospective students to tour campuses and meet with teachers and recruiters, it may hurt fall enrollment.

They reported:

Requests for room and board rebates aren’t the only way colleges could lose money as a result of the coronavirus. Many have canceled admitted student days and student tours and closing campus could affect enrollments in the fall. Institutions that rely heavily on endowment payouts could see them dip in a falling market.

The virus will “certainly roil the admission market” just as student deposits and commitments are due, said Brian Mitchell, King’s co-author on How to Run a College and the founder of Brian Mitchell & Associates, a higher education consulting firm, in an email.

“Effectively, the crisis has the potential to create a double whammy — unexpected [costs] and highly unpredictable future revenue at tuition-driven institutions,” he said.​

Student journalists in some schools are still publishing newspapers

I admire these students and the advisors and educators who inspired these young journalists. Student papers are feeling the same advertiser cancellations and financial pressures as commercial papers. But publications like Michigan State’s student newspaper have announced they will continue to publish. And some, like the University of North Carolina Daily Tar Heel, are still updating daily.

The Student Press Law Center is offering advice to students who have problems reporting the story because of schools throwing up barriers.

Professional TV and radio stations and local newspapers might be smart to tap into these student reporters to help expand coverage at a time when you need content, and the students need clips and material for resumes.

Show us your office

This could be a lot of fun. Ask your viewers, listeners and readers to show you their “offices” or how they are working at home.

Journalists sure are getting creative in that regard. Here is a collection of some images posted to Facebook by TV journalists who are working out of bedrooms, living rooms, patios and, commonly, out of the back seats of their news cars.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at atompkins@poynter.org or on Twitter, @atompkins.

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