The Wickersham Commission is the popular name for the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, which was appointed by President HERBERT HOOVER in 1929. The commission, which derived its name from its chairperson, former attorney general GEORGE W. WICKERSHAM, conducted the first comprehensive national study of crime and law enforcement in U.S. history. Its findings, which were published in fourteen volumes in 1931 and 1932, covered every aspect of the criminal justice system, including the causes of crime, police and prosecutorial procedures, and the importance of PROBATION and PAROLE.
Hoover established the commission to address several important issues. With the passage of the EIGHTEENTH AMENDMENT, PROHIBITION had begun in 1920, making the manufacture or sale of alcoholic beverages illegal. By 1929 illegal sale of alcohol by ORGANIZED CRIME had become a national problem. In addition, gangland murders in Chicago in the late 1920s raised concerns about crime. Hoover appointed the commission to address the issue of crime in general, but he also sought a way to resolve the debate over continuing Prohibition.
The commission included many distinguished national leaders and academics, including Harvard law professor ROSCOE POUND. The commissioners hired a research staff to interview police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, social workers, probation officers, prison administrators, and others involved in the criminal justice system. The commission's wide-ranging investigation was influenced by the comprehensive crime surveys conducted by the states of Missouri and Illinois in the 1920s. Some members of the commission had participated in those studies.
The publication of the commission's findings in 1931 and 1932 was obscured by the hard times brought on by the Great Depression. Nevertheless, the volume entitled Lawlessness in Law Enforcement shocked the nation. This volume constituted an indictment of the POLICE MISCONDUCT the commission had found throughout the country. The report described the widespread use of the "third degree"—the willful infliction of pain and suffering on criminal suspects—and other types of police brutality. In addition, it revealed corruption in many cities' criminal justice systems and documented instances of BRIBERY, ENTRAPMENT, coercion of witnesses, fabrication of evidence, and illegal WIRETAPPING.
The report on Lawlessness in Law Enforcement led to police reform efforts in many municipalities. These efforts were reinforced by volume fourteen, The Police, which called for professional police departments, staffed by more highly qualified police officers and insulated from political pressures.
Other reports included Prosecution, which described the rise of PLEA BARGAINING and the decline of the jury trial, Criminal Statistics, Crime and the Foreign Born, The Cost of Crime, Penal Institutions, Probation and Parole, and The Causes of Crime. The latter volume concluded that sociological factors had a direct effect on criminal activity.
The commission's report on The Enforcement of the Prohibition Laws of the United States was a forthright examination of the failure by federal, state, and local police to enforce Prohibition. The report documented the inadequacy of federal law enforcement and described the political, economic, geographical, and human difficulties in preventing the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquor. Despite evidence of POLICE CORRUPTION and the rise of organized crime, the commission recommended that the Eighteenth Amendment not be repealed. Instead, it urged all levels of government to spend more money and effort on enforcing the Prohibition laws. The commission's recommendations on Prohibition were ignored. In 1933 Congress passed an amendment repealing Prohibition, and state ratification conventions quickly endorsed the amendment. Ratification of the TWENTY-FIRST AMENDMENT, bringing Prohibition's demise, came on December 5, 1933.