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Crime Commissions - The Political Context Of The Crime Commissions

national federal government justice

Nationally chartered blue-ribbon commissions on the causes and prevention of crime have generated reports prolifically since 1925, and particularly since the mid-1960s. The question is, Why? The answers are manifold.

The federal government is only a limited partner with the states in direct crime control. When direct intervention is unavailable as a federal option, the appeal to national expertise and the capacity to recommend are immensely attractive. As a general matter, when the government does not know what to do, the tendency to turn to blue-ribbon commissions is irresistible.

Crime commissions and their causes cannot be understood without substantial awareness of the politics of crime control at the national level in the United States. In national politics, violent crime is a candidate's dream but an incumbent's nightmare. Running for office, the candidate confronts a national consensus against crime in the streets. Once he is president, the issue before him is no longer whether the American public would rather not be mugged, but what the federal government can do about street crime. The answer that has emerged over sixty years—encompassing both free-spending and frugal administrations—is that the federal government cannot do much.

Why is American national government stymied when it comes to the control of street crime? The central problems are two. The first, while important, is elementary. At any level of government there are limits to the capacity of Western democracies to control crime without sacrificing the freedom of the general citizenry. Combining urban interdependence with Western liberty is a risky task in Europe as well as in the United States.

The American federal government operates under a second handicap unknown to other nations. The division of power between different levels of government in the United States hinders direct federal initiatives to counter street crime. The limited criminal justice role of the American national government has few parallels in the developed world. Aside from drug trafficking and bank robbery, street crime in the United States is largely the province of local police, county courts, and state prison systems.

A few comparative statistics make the point. As of 1999, the United States had more than 1.8 million accused or convicted criminals behind bars but only about one in fourteen were in the federal system. Several states had larger prison systems than the federal government. Prisons, moreover, are only the beginning. Decisions to arrest, prosecute, and send to prison are even more decentralized than decisions about prison administration. Here, cities and counties make the decisions, while state governments pay the prison bills. In criminal law enforcement there is nothing new about what has been called the "New Federalism," but much that frustrates the electorate.

The essential frustration is that—notwithstanding occasional programs providing federal money for state prison construction, more police officers, and (very occasionally) improved courts—street crime is a national problem without a federal solution. The remarkable fact about national crime commissions is not that there have been so many but so few. These documents, relying on recommendation where no power exists, range from deplorable to extraordinarily good. Almost invariably, a national crime commission is a response to a specific problem, a high crime period, a change in presidential leadership, or all three. The timing of these documents, their contents, and their legacies vary widely. But serious study of the relationship between the federal government and crime cannot ignore the blue-ribbon commission as a device for coping with the national dimensions of what the public perceives as the crime problem.

Whatever fault may be found with the national crime commissions, they have not been hesitant in making recommendations. Most prodigal was the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, which contributed 494 recommendations to a grand total of more than 1,200 for all the commissions. The National Advisory Commission's summary report referred to "the sweeping range of its proposals." Yet many of those proposals (such as those to "establish mandatory retirement for all judges at age 65" or to "open church facilities for community programs") seem unlikely to contribute greatly to crime reduction (pp. 153–158, 164). So great a profusion of proposals has a tendency to be counterproductive, weakening the impact that four or five targeted priorities might have. At the same time, proclaiming such unrealistic objectives as the reduction of robbery by "at least 50 percent" within ten years (p. 7) tends to undermine whatever credibility these documents might otherwise possess.

It is not at all clear to whom all the admonitions and injunctions in the various commission reports were addressed. Who, for example, was supposed to respond to the 1967 President's Commission's exhortations to "expand efforts to improve housing and recreation" or to "create new job opportunities" (pp. 293–294)? Sometimes unspecified "civic and business groups and all kinds of governmental agencies" are apostrophized (p. xi). Or, even less specifically, "all Americans" or "the citizens of this country" are called on to "work to bring about the necessary changes" (U.S. Department of Justice, National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, p. 4). Most often the recommendations seem, like Longfellow's arrow, to be shot into the air to fall to earth "I know not where."

How is it that intelligent and responsible people produce these grandiose manifestos? The trouble is that national commissions are invariably problem specific. Yet the intractability of the American crime problem lies in its intimate connection with a multitude of other problems, such as race, poverty, unemployment, and drug abuse. It requires a leap of faith to believe that the criminal justice system can somehow surgically remove all the criminogenic elements from this complex of interrelated problems.

There is another aspect to the matter. Crime commissions are assigned to study a single problem in a world where problems are multiple. In the course of their studies they learn how serious their problem is, but they acquire little knowledge of the other ills that beset society. Thus the competition for scarce resources between national afflictions is almost invariably overlooked. This creates a disjunction between the blue-ribbon commission and the national political process, a process that must consider the multiplicity of problems in a multi-problem United States.

To summarize: some crime commissions take years to complete their work, others take months. Some issue huge numbers of volumes, and others produce slim reports. Their common problem is that the federal government can only serve as a limited partner in the administration of criminal justice. No matter how urgent a national issue mugging becomes, for example, the federal response must be limited: when this is the case, it is time to call for the experts and hope they will help. Sometimes they have done so and some times they have not. It would be an occasion for amazement rather than surprise if the United States has seen its last national commission on crime and justice.

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