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Crime Commissions - More Recent Commissions

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Since 1920 there have been ten major national crime commissions under presidential authority or that of the attorney general. But the Wickersham Commission was the last national crime commission appointed until the mid-1960s. After a lapse of more than three decades, the next six commissions were created, between 1965 and 1971. These were the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice established in 1965; the United States National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Commission) (1967); the United States National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence (1968); the U.S. Commission on Obscenity and Pornography (1968); the U.S. Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse (1970); and the Justice Department's National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals (1971). The most recent entries into this forest of blue-ribbon advice have been the Justice Department's National Advisory Committee for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (1980); the Attorney General's Task Force on Violent Crime (1981); the President's Commission on Organized Crime (1983); and the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography (1986), which arose out of promises made during Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign.

The six national efforts that were reported between the mid-1960s and the early 1970s deserve briefer individual attention, at least in this context, because they overlap substantially in time and topic coverage. The first and most serious was a product of the 1964 presidential election, when Senator Barry Goldwater and the Republicans campaigned on a "law and order" "crime in the streets" platform. After his election victory, President Lyndon Johnson responded in 1965 to citizen concern about crime by creating the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, calling upon it to "give us the blueprints that we need to banish crime" ( Johnson, p. 983).

Although it cannot be said to have fulfilled that demand, the President's Commission, with Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach as chairman and James Vorenberg of the Harvard University Law School as executive director, produced a report, The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society, which is perhaps the best official expression of modern America's crime dilemmas ever produced. That report, together with the nine task force volumes that supplement it, has been described as constituting "the most comprehensive description and analysis of the crime problem ever undertaken" (Caplan, pp. 596–597). Thirty years later, the report was described as a "landmark document" that was still "in many ways as instructive and insightful" as when it was written (U.S. Department of Justice, 1997, p. iv).

The next two "crime commissions" were responses to emergencies. The Kerner Commission report reacted to the race riots of the mid-1960s with a highly ideological document that probably reflected the correct ultimate conclusion: the United States was unsuited for apartheid. Living as two societies (one black, one white) would be totally destructive of the American national mission. The U.S. National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence appeared in June 1968, in the aftermath of the assassination of Robert Kennedy. This commission delegated to a body of scholars, task forces, and assistants the independent responsibility of producing volumes on the causes and prevention of violence in American life. The commission's report itself was not a tower of strength. The substantial body of scholarly knowledge in the task force reports was a tribute, as was the Wickersham Commission's report, to serious work and good intentions. The emphasis on task force efforts represented a deliberate departure from the procedure of the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, where the main report was the focus of the commission's senior staff effort.

At the close of the 1960s, two commissions were directed to study specific crime problems: pornography and marijuana. Each commission issued a report recommending reduced criminal enforcement, and both reports were almost immediately rejected by political leaders. The U.S. Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, after two years of scientific research but with few public hearings, issued a report that challenged many common assumptions with respect to the definition of pornography, and the causes and consequences of pornographic materials' production and distribution. The report recommended the dismantling of state and federal obscenity laws after having found no significant connection between sexually explicit materials and criminal sexual behavior. The Nixon Administration dismissed the report's findings as morally bankrupt.

The congressionally mandated U.S. Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse issued a multivolume report on the pharmacological and social effects of drug use and abuse, and concluded with a controversial proposal that the major thrust of policy should be to minimize the incidence and consequences of intensified and compulsive use of psychoactive drugs. The commission urged decriminalization of some recreational marihuana use to reflect social change, stating that the drug's potential for harm to the vast majority of individual users and its actual impact on society did not justify a policy designed to seek out and punish users. This proposal angered the Nixon Administration, which decidedly repudiated the report. Eventually, a federal "drug czar" was appointed, to coordinate a "war on drugs," and federal drug penalties were increased substantially. Nevertheless, federal and some state penalties for possession and use of marijuana were temporarily relaxed during and following the publication of the commission's report, and a few states subsequently approved limited marijuana use in connection with certain medical conditions.

The Justice Department's National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals issued its major report, A National Strategy to Reduce Crime, in 1973. It was a Nixon commission and a Nixon document. The commission's standards for immediate reform were too high. For example, most forms of predatory crime were to be cut in half by 1983. "Standards" and "goals" abounded in the report, the former including many platitudes and the latter awash in numerical fantasies.

By contrast to earlier efforts, the next two federal commissions to report on crime were low-budget affairs. The Justice Department's National Advisory Committee for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reported in 1980. Its major contribution was a set of standards for the administration of juvenile justice. No scholarly tomes were at the foundation of this volume, and no great ambitions informed it. It was an intense and sincere effort, but as Oscar Wilde remarked about sincerity, a little of it "is a dangerous thing and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

Attorney General William French Smith's 1981 Task Force on Violent Crime was a modest, "no-nonsense" undertaking. Its report stood in sharp contrast to the basic strategy of crime commissions since their inception: seek expert advice and report on basic knowledge. Wickersham and the 1960s-era national crime commissions had taken years and produced large volumes; Attorney General Smith's task force was given 120 days, and during this period the task force members interrupted their deliberations to travel to seven cities for public hearings. Nevertheless, the task force produced a volume of ninety-six pages, documenting sixty-four individual recommendations. Many of the sixty-four recommendations were off-the-shelf conservative bromides; others were hastily conceived in an atmosphere of high enthusiasm and substantial misinformation.

The President's Commission on Organized Crime undertook an enormous effort to expand upon President Lyndon Johnson's effort twenty years earlier to identify and analyze organized crime. The commission produced twelve volumes of hearings and reports over a four-year period. Some of the most significant departures from previous efforts were the broadening of the definition of organized crime to reflect the multiethnic international expansion of organized criminal activity, and the recommendation for expanded civil remedies to address private commercial corruption. Unlike President Johnson's effort, the Commission failed to evaluate federal prosecutorial roles in dealing with organized crime, which lead to dissension among the commission's members and little in the way of results.

In 1986 President Reagan's Attorney General, Edwin Meese, led the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography, which sought to eviscerate the U.S. Obscenity and Pornography Commission's conclusions and recommendations regarding the nature, extent, and impact on society of pornography in the United States. The new commission's report admitted, however, that its conclusions lacked independent research and were dependent almost exclusively on politically charged public hearings. Nevertheless, the Meese Commission justified its departure from the earlier commission report by noting that technological advances have enabled far more extensive private access to pornographic materials. As a result of the commission's work, the attorney general created a federal prosecutorial unit that specialized in prosecutions of obscenity-related crimes.

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