Criminal Law During (and After) COVID-19
32 Pages Posted: 13 May 2020 Last revised: 10 Jun 2020
Date Written: May 12, 2020
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, governments across the globe are implementing drastic physical distancing measures with wide-ranging implications. Courts are increasingly confronted with novel pandemic-related issues that are significantly altering the criminal justice system. This article explores the current and potential impacts of COVID-19 on three specific areas of the criminal law: the scope of certain crimes, bail, and punishment. It advances three core arguments.
First, the pandemic creates a risk that courts will expand the breadth of crimes such as assault and aggravated assault for conduct such as coughing. It provides compelling reasons why courts must limit the scope of these criminal offences and why judges should not extend the legal framework that applies to HIV non-disclosure to COVID-19 transmissions. Second, the pandemic is changing the bail process. Due to COVID-19 outbreaks in detention centres, courts are rethinking whether pre-trial custody is necessary to maintain public confidence in the criminal justice system. More than ever, judges consider the interests of defendants and detainees when interpreting the concept of “public confidence” – a positive change that limits recourse to pre-trial custody. Third, the pandemic is impacting sentencing as judges move away from custodial punishments. COVID-19 highlights why incarceration and financial penalties disparately impact defendants, which raises concerns regarding proportionality and retributive justifications for punishment both during and beyond the pandemic.
Ultimately, this article shows why judges, policy makers, and justice system actors should seize on this unique opportunity to generate lasting positive changes to the criminal justice system that are taking place during the pandemic.
Keywords: Criminal law, COVID, bail, sentencing, assault
JEL Classification: K1, K10, K14, K32, K42
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation