2 minute read

The Early Years of American Law

New Demands On Criminal Justice

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries crime rates rose as society experienced further changes. National economic depressions, large waves of immigrants from Asia and eastern and southern Europe, further growth of industrial centers, and violent labor outbreaks strained society and the criminal justice system. As local law enforcement had difficulty keeping up, states created state police forces. Through the 1920s almost thirty states created police organizations with some modeled after the military-like Pennsylvania State Police created in 1905.

America's First Policewoman

Through the 1800s as professional police departments grew around the nation, women held few positions. Mostly women served as prison workers taking care of female inmates. Then in 1909 social worker Alice Stebbins Wells (1873–1957) pressed Los Angeles to establish a new city ordinance allowing female policewomen. With the support of some influential people, the ordinance was quickly adopted and on September 12, 1910, Wells became the nation's first female policewoman with arrest powers. She received a badge, a key to telephone call boxes, a rule book, and a first aid book. Wells even designed and made some of her own tailored uniforms.

The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) assigned Wells to patrol public recreation places where women and children frequented, such as skating rinks, dance halls, and movie theaters. By October 1912 two other women were added to the staff. By 1916 sixteen other U.S. cities and several foreign countries had hired policewomen. By 1937 the LAPD employed thirty-nine policewomen and their duties expanded to criminal investigations in addition to patrol.

Pressing onward, Wells helped organize the International Policewoman's Association in 1915 and founded the Women's Peace Officers Association of California in 1928. In 1918 Wells was instrumental in the first college class being offered on the work of policewomen for new and prospective recruits in the UCLA Criminology Department. Wells retired in November 1940 after thirty years on the police force.

During this time Congress also added new federal crimes, including criminal activities occurring in two or more states. The White Slave Traffic Act (Mann Act) in 1910 banned the transportation of women across state lines for immoral purposes. The National Motor Vehicle Theft Act of 1919 made it a federal crime to take stolen vehicles across state lines. By far the largest impact on the existing criminal justice systems was passage of the Volstead Act of 1920 banning the sale of alcoholic beverages. Through the 1920s the act produced a major crime wave as Americans obtained alcohol however they could. Respect for law enforcement decreased, and prison populations dramatically increased.

Based on these pressures, the criminal justice system was ready for major improvements, which began in the 1930s and eventually led to the modern legal system of the twenty-first century.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawThe Early Years of American Law - Colonial Freedom, Britain's Push For Greater Control, A New Start, A New Criminal Court System