Wickersham, George W.

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George W. Wickersham

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.

Things to remember while reading excerpts from The Problem of Law Enforcement:

  • Wickersham was a short, stocky man who was very blunt in expressing his views. He was an excellent choice as a strong leader for the commission, which became known as the Wickersham Commission.
  • Wickersham's primary task as attorney general in 1909 was to enforce the Sherman Antitrust Law against illegal corporate practices. He earned great respect for the large number of business monopoly cases he tackled.
  • The Wickersham Commission was the first national study of criminal justice in the United States. Two previous crime commissions were the Cleveland Survey of Criminal Justice in the early 1920s and the 1926 Missouri Crime Survey.
  • Competition among criminals over the lucrative bootlegging market led to bloody gangster wars in the late 1920s, drawing even greater public concern over the ability of law enforcement to make the streets safe.
  • A "get tough on crime" approach in the late 1920s had decreased the use of parole (when inmates are allowed to leave prison before serving out their full sentences) and probation (when offenders are allowed to remain in their community under supervision) in criminal justice.

Excerpt from The Problem of Law Enforcement

Since the national Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement rendered its report on the problem of the enforcement of prohibition under the provisions of the eighteenth amendment and the laws enacted pursuant thereto, I am constantly asked if our work is not finished and when our commission will dissolve.

The overwhelming public interest in prohibition has obscured the fact that the commission was charged with the duty to study and report on any other subject.

But, as a matter of fact, for many months bodies of research experts and scholars have been at work for us, probing sources of information bearing upon many of the problems suggested by the title of the commission, and patiently gathering facts and formulating recommendations for our consideration. All this is being done in fulfillment of the mandate laid upon the commission by the president, to study and report upon the whole of the problems involved in criminallaw enforcement.

In his inaugural address, President Hoover referred to disregard and disobedience of law as the most malign of the dangers confronting the State. Confidence in rigid and speedy justice, he said, is decreasing. Rigid and expeditious justice he declared to be "the first safeguard of freedom, the basis of all ordered liberty, the vital force of progress." And he added:

"Justice must not fall because the agencies of enforcement are either delinquent or inefficiently organized. To consider these evils, to find their remedy, is the most sore necessity of our time."

On the day of the inauguration of Mr. Hoover as President the Congress included in one of the appropriation bills an allotted sum "for the purpose of a thorough inquiry into the problem of the enforcement of prohibition together with the enforcement of other laws." The President shortly afterwards created this commission to conduct the inquiry so authorized, giving to the legislative act a broad interpretation by enjoining the commission to make an exhaustive study of the entire problem of the enforcement of our laws and the improvement of our judicial system, and inviting them to make the widest inquiry into the shortcomings of the administration of justice and into the causes and remedies for them. . . .

Abundant evidence has been spread before the American people for years past of the need of a thorough overhauling of our whole system of criminal justice. Every day furnishes examples of the absence of that wholesome respect for law which ought to be characteristic of a self-governing people. . . .

The Department of Commerce, in June 1929, stated that no authoritative or reliable statistics on crime and criminal justice are available except for limited areas in the United States, notably New York and Missouri and the cities of New York, Detroit, Chicago, and Cleveland.

"In short there is an absolute need for reliable statistics, expertly analyzed, before an intelligent diagnosis of the situation can be properly undertaken.". . . In the light of such criticism, . . . one of the first subjects which our commission assigned for study and report was that of criminal statistics. The result of careful studies made for the commission . . . recommends that the compiling and publishing of statistics of Federal administration of justice shall be committed to one bureau in the Department of Justice. . . .

If we could know just what causes men to commit crime, we should be able to better judge the fitness and value of our punitiveand reformative methods and to mold them to more effectively prevent lawless conduct. Personally, I believe there is no one cause of crime. Human nature is complex. Men yield to temptation. Some men are so constituted physically or mentally that they cannot resist temptation. Again, what would tempt one man to violate a law would not move another. But while there may be no one cause of crime, as there is no one cause of disease, there are circumstances and conditions which may readily be recognized as tending to foster and encourage lawless conduct, and which may be mitigated or removed by wise public action. So it appeared to the commission that a study into some of these conditions might furnish fruitful results. . . . Mary van Kleeck and Emma A. Winslow have made experimental inquiries into the influence of unemployment and occupational conditions upon crime. A preliminary review . . . of published investigations she [Winslow] found to be fairly conclusive with reference to the tendency for crimes against property and vagrancy to increase during periods of economic depression and decrease during prosperity, and for alcoholism to increase during periods of prosperity and decrease during depression. Other groups of offenses apparently are affected only slightly and irregularly. . . . It is through careful studies of this kind that reliable conclusions may be reached concerning the social and economic conditions which tend to produce or discourage criminality. As a result . . . unemployment ranks high among the factors which influence crimes against property. . . .

Any study of the causes of crime in any community must address itself to an earnest consideration of the condition and the education of the children of the community. Very slowly we have been coming to a realization of the preeminent importance of the child to the State. That importance would seem to be obvious . . . one dollar wisely invested in the care of a child; one day spent in the careful considerate study of its environment and the method of accomplishing its removal from evil influences, may result in greater profit to the State than one thousand dollars spent on the machinery of criminal justice. The New York Crime Commission has very truly said, "The ultimate crime prevention task is that of guiding the development of childhood behavior." A very challenging statement is made by that commission in its 1930 report, that a study of the life histories of 145 male inmates of the State prisons and reformatory during the months of August and September, 1929, of the age of 30 years and under, showed that a majority of these men began their delinquent careers as children. . . . The juvenile courthas been described as "America's most notable contribution to the field of criminology and penology." Its organization and functions and a study of its workings are essential to a clear understanding of its accomplishments and its possibilities. Communities should be led to realize that while juvenile courts cost money, they do not cost as much as prisons. . . .

With the great increase in number and character of Federal crimes have come new and serious additions to the jurisdiction of Federal courts which they are ill fitted satisfactorily to exercise . . . and only recently has Congress made fairly reasonable appropriations for the administration of the probation and parole laws. Under our system of punitive justice, an offender convicted of crime is liable to fine or imprisonment, or both. By virtue of probation laws in many States, and in the Federal jurisdiction, under certain conditions, the court is empowered instead of sending him to prison, to release the offender on probation, which means under official supervision and control, during the term for which he might have been imprisoned. Under parole laws, some constituted authority other than the court may release an offender, after he has served a portion of his sentence, subject to supervision and good behavior until the expiration of his original sentence. . . .

A study of 8,475 male occupants of six penal institutions in the State of New York, recently made by the American Prison Association, showed that less than half of them were normal, one-fourth were feeble-minded, and nearly one-third psychopaths or psychotic. This is believed to be fairly representative of many, if not most, prison populations. . . .

Yet much of our dealing with criminals has wholly ignored the fact of individuality and treated them wholesale. . . .

Probation laws generally have been framed upon well thought out theories. They contemplate the assembly of all available information concerning the prisoner, as a guide to the judge in determining whether or not to release him on probation instead of sending him to prison. The operation of parole laws usually is so restricted that the offender can not be released from close custody until he shall have served a definite fraction of his imprisonment sentence.

The operation of both classes of laws has been greatly impeded by inadequate appropriations, insufficient numbers or imperfectly trained probation or parole officers, and by assignment to them so large a number of offenders as to make impossible anything like adequate supervision of the probationers or parolees. . . .

In the desperate effort to compel obedience to law, experience has shown that those charged with the high function of enforcing the law sometimes stoop to attain their ends by means as illegal as the acts they seek to punish or suppress. It is time a study should be made of this phase of our civilization and that now in course of preparation for our commission will be presented as perhaps the first, or one of the first attempts to put in concrete form for public consideration this ugly side of our officialdom. . . .

There are many signs of a public awakening to the need of a radical improvement in our penal laws and in the machinery of criminal justice. The public mind is avid for concrete facts and ready to respond to effective leadership in pointing out the best way to accomplish the needed reforms. Our commission is dealing with the problems from the national standpoint. The studies which local organizations have made and are making, and the reports and recommendations already published, not only are useful in the especial communities to which they apply but are helpful to the solution of the broader problems in the national field with which our commission is dealing. The nature of our Federal system creates complications and difficulties foreign to the centralized governments of other lands. But in this, as with other problems, I am persuaded that when an informed public sentiment is aroused, the genius of the American people will find some way of removing the reproach to which our system of criminal justice so long has been justly exposed.

What happened next . . .

The commission's reports did not give the existing criminal justice system high marks. According to the commission in a volume titled Lawlessness in Law Enforcement, many police departments across the nation were corrupt, not well operated, and poorly trained. The reports were also critical of the nation's prison system for not adequately rehabilitating inmates. The Wickersham Commission revived the use of probation and parole in rehabilitating offenders.

Specific recommendations provided in the reports on how to improve criminal justice in America were gradually adopted through the years. A new generation of police leaders in the 1930s used the commission's findings to improve their departments, including ways for the public to report police misconduct. For example, as the commission found, prisons focused more on strict discipline and punishment than treatment. These harsh conditions fueled violence and riots within the prison walls. Using the Wickersham Commission recommendations later in the 1930s, prison systems began classifying inmates according to their level of security risk. The less serious offenders were placed in prison farms and forest camps. Prisons also placed emphasis on education and vocational training.

The commission, as indicated in Wickersham's excerpts, identified a major need to keep national crime statistics. The agency that later became the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) created Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) in 1935 to help track crime. Both Wickersham and UCRs were major factors in the debate over the creation of a national crime data system.

Overall, the commission's reports greatly affected the long-term understanding of crime and punishment in the United States. It was one of the first efforts to estimate the cost of crime to society and two of its volumes explored the causes of crime and the importance of sociological studies. This was a major step in recognizing the new field of criminology, the scientific study of crime.

Did you know . . .

  • Police officials at first angrily denounced the Wickersham findings on police misconduct such as forced confessions through brutal physical force and not letting suspects have access to lawyers. Wickersham reported that most police misconduct was directed toward the poor, minorities, labor activists, and political radicals. Police reform was now a national issue to be addressed throughout the following decades.
  • As a result of the attention drawn to the Prohibition by the reports, many of the other meaningful recommendations had to wait until Prohibition officially ended in 1933.
  • The Wickersham Commission set the foundation for the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice in the mid-1960s, known as the President's Crime Commission.

Consider the following . . .

  • What do you think the country learned through its decade-long experimentation with Prohibition?
  • Throughout the1920s prison crowding increased due to convicted violators of Prohibition. What is the importance of probation and parole as described by Wickersham for improving prison conditions?
  • Explain the reasons why growing poverty increases crime rates. Which sections of your community or region reflect this trend?

Rendered: Delivered.

Malign: Harmful.

Expeditious: Speedy.

Enjoining: Directing.

Remedies: Solutions.

Mitigated: The effect lessened.

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).