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George W. Wickersham

Things To Remember While Reading Excerpts From The Problem Of Law Enforcement:, Excerpt From The Problem Of Law Enforcement

Excerpt from The Problem of Law Enforcement

An address by George W. Wickersham on April 16, 1931

Published by the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, 1931

The 1920s were a particularly trying time for the U.S. criminal justice system. The introduction of Prohibition by passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919 introduced a new crime wave. Prohibition meant that no longer could people legally sell, transport, or possess alcoholic beverages. A black market for liquor immediately developed as the public's thirst for alcohol did not diminish though the availability did.

With so much money to be made by supplying illegal liquor, the influence of organized crime grew. The criminal justice system seemed incapable of responding effectively as some criminals like Al Capone (1899–1947) achieved celebrity status. Much money could also be made in local law enforcement—through bribes and corruption. Public respect for the criminal justice system declined to an all-time low.

"Justice must not fall because the agencies of enforcement are either delinquent or inefficiently organized."

President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964; served 1929–33) won the presidential election in November 1928. In his inaugural address on March 4, 1929, Hoover became the first U.S. president to refer to crime as a national issue in an inauguration speech. He announced his desire to create a National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement. Hoover appointed George Wickersham, a former U.S. attorney general under President William H. Taft (1857–1930; served 1909–13), to head the commission.

There were ten other members on the commission with Wickersham; some were prominent Americans such as the dean of Harvard Law School. The commission was charged with assessing the condition of criminal justice in the nation, and to investigate the problems in enforcing Prohibition. The commission was to make recommendations on how to improve the U.S. legal system including policing, the courts, and corrections.

Wickersham was a lawyer by training who practiced in New York before being named Taft's attorney general. After leaving public office in 1912, Wickersham returned to private law practice but remained very dedicated to public affairs. In 1915 as the state of New York developed a new state constitution, he chaired the judiciary committee for the constitutional convention. In the mid-1920s he also served on a commission charged with reorganizing the state's government.

By June 1930 the Wickersham Commission had completed its work and issued fourteen reports on practically every aspect of criminal justice. It was the most comprehensive assessment in the history of the United States to that time. The reports looked into Prohibition enforcement, deportation laws used to rid the country of political radicals, prison operations, police misconduct, juvenile justice, the causes of crime, and the costs of crime.

Though the Wickersham Commission reports provided a wealth of information and recommendations on many aspects of law enforcement, the judicial system, and prisons, the sections drawing the most attention were those addressing Prohibition. Unlike many of the other reports, the commission was indecisive on what to do about Prohibition. The resulting report sections were contradictory, drawing criticism from both supporters and opponents of Prohibition. The press made fun of the results and President Hoover distanced himself from the report. Wickersham gave speeches highlighting less controversial findings of the commission and on April 16, 1931, he spoke before the Regional Crime Committee of Cincinnati, Ohio.

Political cartoon criticizing the Wickersham Law Enforcement Commission for its reports, considered useless by critics, on Prohibition. The wealthy fat man in the cartoon is labeled Commission. (National Archives and Records Administration)

For More Information


Chase, Anthony. Law and History: The Evolution of the American Legal System. New York: New Press, 1997.

Friedman, Lawrence M. Crime and Punishment in American History. New York: Basic Books, 1993.

Walker, Samuel. Popular Justice: A History of American Criminal Justice. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Web Site

"Uniform Crime Reports." Federal Bureau of Investigation. http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/ucr.htm (accessed on August 19, 2004).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law