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Modern Criminal Justice - Organized Crime

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America's fear of organized crime grew in the 1950s. The perception of a giant organization of professional criminals, mostly of Sicilian (from Sicily, Italy) origin and referred to as the Mafia or La Cosa Nostra, captured the nation's attention. Many remembered back to the 1920s Prohibition era when crime syndicates (a group of people who work together in a business activity, legal or illegal) led by well-known criminals such as Al Capone (1899–1947) overwhelmed the criminal justice system.

In 1950 and 1951, U.S. senator Estes Kefauver (1903–1963) of Tennessee chaired a special congressional committee to investigate organized crime in America, including racketeering (obtaining money through illegal activities). Based on limited evidence, the Kefauver Committee claimed rich and powerful crime organizations operated in many U.S. cities. Dramatic media coverage of the Kefauver hearings on organized crime increased public concern. Kefauver even wrote a book, Crime in America (1951), based on the committee's findings.

In response to hearings, the FBI formed a special racketeering unit and began tracking interstate crime groups. Attorney Members of the Kefauver Committee, also known as the Senate Crime Investigating Committee, offered many suggestions on how to better tighten the laws surrounding organized crime in the early 1950s. (AP/Wide World Photos)
General Robert F. Kennedy (1925–1968) made organized crime one of his highest priorities.

In 1967 a presidential task force under President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69) revealed for the first time the inner workings of organized crime, particularly the Cosa Nostra, which operated an entire network of more than twenty Italian and Sicilian crime families in various U.S. cities. To give law enforcement greater authority to combat organized crime, Congress passed the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO), also known as the Organized Crime Control Act, in 1970.

RICO led to the successful prosecutions of Cosa Nostra members in the 1980s and 1990s. Owing to the longstanding public fascination with organized crime kept alive by the The Godfather movie series, the 1992 trial of mobster hit man John Gotti (1940–2002) in New York attracted considerable public attention. While federal authorities were concentrating on mobsters, other organized crime groups grew in wealth and power involving drug trafficking. These organizations were composed of ethnic gangs, largely from Latin America, East Asia, and Eastern Europe. (See chapter 7 on organized crime for more information.)

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