Punishing Social Distancing Deviance in a Pandemic: An Experiment on Attitudes Towards Individual- and Business-Owner Offenders

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Objective: To understand how the public perceives violation of social distancing ordinances, whether reactions depend on the type of offender, and whether similar factors explain COVID-related punitiveness and general punitiveness toward crimes.

Data and Methods: A national-level, internet survey administered in March 2020 using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (N = 995). Experimental vignettes randomized the offense characteristics and described either an individual offender or a business-owner offender.

Results: In the case of both types of offenders, punitive attitudes toward social distancing deviance reflect both utilitarian and expressive concerns. Respondents prefer harsher penalties when the offense carries a greater risk of virus transmission, when the offender is more blameworthy, and when greater harm is done. Both personal and altruistic fear of the virus are associated with greater punitiveness, but racial attitudes are not significantly associated with COVID-related punitiveness, and general punitiveness is only weakly related to COVID-related punitiveness.

Conclusions: As with crime in general, dangerousness and moral culpability influence COVID-related punitiveness. Unlike crime in general, COVID-related punitiveness is only weakly related to racial beliefs, partisanship, or political ideology. Public reactions to new offenses, such as social-distance violations, may be disconnected from the cultural understanding that gives rise to racialized punitiveness.


American Society of Criminology


Chicago, IL

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