3 minute read

Crime Commissions

More Recent Commissions, The Political Context Of The Crime Commissions, Bibliography

The emergence of crime as a national issue in America dates back to the early 1920s. The Volstead Act, providing for federal enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment (which prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors), went into effect in January 1920. This was followed by the rapid growth of organized crime in the form of large-scale smuggling, manufacture, and sale of alcoholic beverages. The open and well-publicized violence and lawlessness involved inspired a widely held belief that the nation was undergoing a crime wave.

This perception led President Calvin Coolidge in November 1925 to appoint the first national crime commission to investigate what steps could be taken to reduce crime. Members of the executive committee of the commission included Franklin D. Roosevelt (then assistant secretary of the navy), Charles Evans Hughes (a U.S. Supreme Court Justice and later the Court's Chief Justice), Richard Washburn Child (ambassador to Italy), Hubert Hedley (chancellor of Washington University), and Hugh Frayne (representing the American Federation of Labor).

The establishment of the commission was criticized on the grounds that its members lacked "expert knowledge" or "special experience" of the crime problem; that it had "no power"; and that consequently there was "little hope of any practical results from such a commission" (Wigmore, pp. 313–314). That prediction appears to have been fulfilled. The commission "met with little success and much opposition and jealousy from state counterparts" (Cronin, Cronin, and Milakovich, p. 28).

The commission did, however, make one significant discovery. As Roosevelt put it in 1929: "On the word of the National Crime Commission which has been studying the matter for three years . . . no one can today state with any authoritative statistics to back him, whether there is or is not a crime wave in the United States . . . . [A]s to whether or not there is a total increase in the number of crimes committed we have no knowledge whatever." No one could tell, "even in the most inaccurate way" how many murders took place per year (p. 369).

The second national crime commission was also the product of presidential concern that a crime wave had swept the country. President Herbert Hoover, who had campaigned in part on a law-and-order platform, declared in his inaugural address on 4 March 1929, that "the most malign of all these dangers today is disregard and disobedience of law. Crime is increasing. Confidence in rigid and speedy justice is decreasing" (1974, p. 2).

Hoover added that he would "appoint a national commission for a searching investigation of the whole structure of our Federal system of jurisprudence, to include the method of enforcement of the 18th amendment and the causes of abuse under it" (p. 4). Accordingly, in May 1929 he established the United States National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, with former attorney general George W. Wickersham as chairman, and requested it to "investigate and recommend action upon the whole crime and prohibition question" (1951–1952, p. 277).

Within the next two years the commission, which included among its members Roscoe Pound of the Harvard University Law School and Ada Comstock, president of Radcliffe College, issued fourteen separate reports totaling almost three and a half million words. The reports were the product of an exhaustive investigation of all aspects of national law enforcement, and they made numerous recommendations for reform.

Unfortunately, what attracted most attention were the commission's contradictory and inconclusive findings in its Report on the Enforcement of the Prohibition Laws of the United States. By a large majority, the commission opposed the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, but at the same time it presented substantial evidence that effective enforcement was unattainable (U.S. National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, vol. 2).

As a result, the commission was attacked by both supporters and opponents of Prohibition. It was ridiculed by the press and even criticized by Hoover himself. In the national debate on Prohibition that culminated in the 1932 election, the commission's other recommendations were forgotten. Nevertheless, it is generally credited with exerting substantial influence in bringing Prohibition to an end.

Otherwise, the Wickersham Commission's reports and recommendations had little impact on the administration of criminal justice. But it was a first-rate effort that, for the first time in American history, attempted to present to a national audience a body of research into the problems of crime and its control. The reports have proved to be of enduring value to the community of criminal justice and criminological scholars.




Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law