Crime Commissions Research Paper

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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.

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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.

More Recent Commissions

Since 1920 there have been ten major national crime commissions under presidential authority or that of the attorney general. But the Wickersham Commission was the last national crime commission appointed until the mid1960s. After a lapse of more than three decades, the next six commissions were created, between 1965 and 1971. These were the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice established in 1965; the United States National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Commission) (1967); the United States National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence (1968); the U.S. Commission on Obscenity and Pornography (1968); the U.S. Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse (1970); and the Justice Department’s National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals (1971). The most recent entries into this forest of blue-ribbon advice have been the Justice Department’s National Advisory Committee for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (1980); the Attorney General’s Task Force on Violent Crime (1981); the President’s Commission on Organized Crime (1983); and the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography (1986), which arose out of promises made during Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign.

The six national efforts that were reported between the mid-1960s and the early 1970s deserve briefer individual attention, at least in this context, because they overlap substantially in time and topic coverage. The first and most serious was a product of the 1964 presidential election, when Senator Barry Goldwater and the Republicans campaigned on a ‘‘law and order’’ ‘‘crime in the streets’’ platform. After his election victory, President Lyndon Johnson responded in 1965 to citizen concern about crime by creating the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, calling upon it to ‘‘give us the blueprints that we need to banish crime’’ ( Johnson, p. 983).

Although it cannot be said to have fulfilled that demand, the President’s Commission, with Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach as chairman and James Vorenberg of the Harvard University Law School as executive director, produced a report, The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society, which is perhaps the best official expression of modern America’s crime dilemmas ever produced. That report, together with the nine task force volumes that supplement it, has been described as constituting ‘‘the most comprehensive description and analysis of the crime problem ever undertaken’’ (Caplan, pp. 596–597). Thirty years later, the report was described as a ‘‘landmark document’’ that was still ‘‘in many ways as instructive and insightful’’ as when it was written (U.S. Department of Justice, 1997, p. iv). The next two ‘‘crime commissions’’ were responses to emergencies. The Kerner Commission report reacted to the race riots of the mid1960s with a highly ideological document that probably reflected the correct ultimate conclusion: the United States was unsuited for apartheid. Living as two societies (one black, one white) would be totally destructive of the American national mission. The U.S. National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence appeared in June 1968, in the aftermath of the assassination of Robert Kennedy. This commission delegated to a body of scholars, task forces, and assistants the independent responsibility of producing volumes on the causes and prevention of violence in American life. The commission’s report itself was not a tower of strength. The substantial body of scholarly knowledge in the task force reports was a tribute, as was the Wickersham Commission’s report, to serious work and good intentions. The emphasis on task force efforts represented a deliberate departure from the procedure of the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, where the main report was the focus of the commission’s senior staff effort.

At the close of the 1960s, two commissions were directed to study specific crime problems: pornography and marijuana. Each commission issued a report recommending reduced criminal enforcement, and both reports were almost immediately rejected by political leaders. The U.S. Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, after two years of scientific research but with few public hearings, issued a report that challenged many common assumptions with respect to the definition of pornography, and the causes and consequences of pornographic materials’ production and distribution. The report recommended the dismantling of state and federal obscenity laws after having found no significant connection between sexually explicit materials and criminal sexual behavior. The Nixon Administration dismissed the report’s findings as morally bankrupt.

The congressionally mandated U.S. Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse issued a multivolume report on the pharmacological and social effects of drug use and abuse, and concluded with a controversial proposal that the major thrust of policy should be to minimize the incidence and consequences of intensified and compulsive use of psychoactive drugs. The commission urged decriminalization of some recreational marihuana use to reflect social change, stating that the drug’s potential for harm to the vast majority of individual users and its actual impact on society did not justify a policy designed to seek out and punish users. This proposal angered the Nixon Administration, which decidedly repudiated the report. Eventually, a federal ‘‘drug czar’’ was appointed, to coordinate a ‘‘war on drugs,’’ and federal drug penalties were increased substantially. Nevertheless, federal and some state penalties for possession and use of marijuana were temporarily relaxed during and following the publication of the commission’s report, and a few states subsequently approved limited marijuana use in connection with certain medical conditions.

The Justice Department’s National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals issued its major report, A National Strategy to Reduce Crime, in 1973. It was a Nixon commission and a Nixon document. The commission’s standards for immediate reform were too high. For example, most forms of predatory crime were to be cut in half by 1983. ‘‘Standards’’ and ‘‘goals’’ abounded in the report, the former including many platitudes and the latter awash in numerical fantasies.

By contrast to earlier efforts, the next two federal commissions to report on crime were low-budget affairs. The Justice Department’s National Advisory Committee for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reported in 1980. Its major contribution was a set of standards for the administration of juvenile justice. No scholarly tomes were at the foundation of this volume, and no great ambitions informed it. It was an intense and sincere effort, but as Oscar Wilde remarked about sincerity, a little of it ‘‘is a dangerous thing and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.’’

Attorney General William French Smith’s 1981 Task Force on Violent Crime was a modest, ‘‘no-nonsense’’ undertaking. Its report stood in sharp contrast to the basic strategy of crime commissions since their inception: seek expert advice and report on basic knowledge. Wickersham and the 1960s-era national crime commissions had taken years and produced large volumes; Attorney General Smith’s task force was given 120 days, and during this period the task force members interrupted their deliberations to travel to seven cities for public hearings. Nevertheless, the task force produced a volume of ninety-six pages, documenting sixty-four individual recommendations. Many of the sixty-four recommendations were off-the-shelf conservative bromides; others were hastily conceived in an atmosphere of high enthusiasm and substantial misinformation.

The President’s Commission on Organized Crime undertook an enormous effort to expand upon President Lyndon Johnson’s effort twenty years earlier to identify and analyze organized crime. The commission produced twelve volumes of hearings and reports over a four-year period. Some of the most significant departures from previous efforts were the broadening of the definition of organized crime to reflect the multiethnic international expansion of organized criminal activity, and the recommendation for expanded civil remedies to address private commercial corruption. Unlike President Johnson’s effort, the Commission failed to evaluate federal prosecutorial roles in dealing with organized crime, which lead to dissension among the commission’s members and little in the way of results.

In 1986 President Reagan’s Attorney General, Edwin Meese, led the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography, which sought to eviscerate the U.S. Obscenity and Pornography Commission’s conclusions and recommendations regarding the nature, extent, and impact on society of pornography in the United States. The new commission’s report admitted, however, that its conclusions lacked independent research and were dependent almost exclusively on politically charged public hearings. Nevertheless, the Meese Commission justified its departure from the earlier commission report by noting that technological advances have enabled far more extensive private access to pornographic materials. As a result of the commission’s work, the attorney general created a federal prosecutorial unit that specialized in prosecutions of obscenity-related crimes.

The Political Context of The Crime Commissions

Nationally chartered blue-ribbon commissions on the causes and prevention of crime have generated reports prolifically since 1925, and particularly since the mid-1960s. The question is, Why? The answers are manifold.

The federal government is only a limited partner with the states in direct crime control. When direct intervention is unavailable as a federal option, the appeal to national expertise and the capacity to recommend are immensely attractive. As a general matter, when the government does not know what to do, the tendency to turn to blue-ribbon commissions is irresistible.

Crime commissions and their causes cannot be understood without substantial awareness of the politics of crime control at the national level in the United States. In national politics, violent crime is a candidate’s dream but an incumbent’s nightmare. Running for office, the candidate confronts a national consensus against crime in the streets. Once he is president, the issue before him is no longer whether the American public would rather not be mugged, but what the federal government can do about street crime. The answer that has emerged over sixty years— encompassing both free-spending and frugal administrations—is that the federal government cannot do much.

Why is American national government stymied when it comes to the control of street crime? The central problems are two. The first, while important, is elementary. At any level of government there are limits to the capacity of Western democracies to control crime without sacrificing the freedom of the general citizenry. Combining urban interdependence with Western liberty is a risky task in Europe as well as in the United States.

The American federal government operates under a second handicap unknown to other nations. The division of power between different levels of government in the United States hinders direct federal initiatives to counter street crime. The limited criminal justice role of the American national government has few parallels in the developed world. Aside from drug trafficking and bank robbery, street crime in the United States is largely the province of local police, county courts, and state prison systems.

A few comparative statistics make the point. As of 1999, the United States had more than 1.8 million accused or convicted criminals behind bars but only about one in fourteen were in the federal system. Several states had larger prison systems than the federal government. Prisons, moreover, are only the beginning. Decisions to arrest, prosecute, and send to prison are even more decentralized than decisions about prison administration. Here, cities and counties make the decisions, while state governments pay the prison bills. In criminal law enforcement there is nothing new about what has been called the ‘‘New Federalism,’’ but much that frustrates the electorate.

The essential frustration is that— notwithstanding occasional programs providing federal money for state prison construction, more police officers, and (very occasionally) improved courts—street crime is a national problem without a federal solution. The remarkable fact about national crime commissions is not that there have been so many but so few. These documents, relying on recommendation where no power exists, range from deplorable to extraordinarily good. Almost invariably, a national crime commission is a response to a specific problem, a high crime period, a change in presidential leadership, or all three. The timing of these documents, their contents, and their legacies vary widely. But serious study of the relationship between the federal government and crime cannot ignore the blue-ribbon commission as a device for coping with the national dimensions of what the public perceives as the crime problem. Whatever fault may be found with the national crime commissions, they have not been hesitant in making recommendations. Most prodigal was the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, which contributed 494 recommendations to a grand total of more than 1,200 for all the commissions. The National Advisory Commission’s summary report referred to ‘‘the sweeping range of its proposals.’’ Yet many of those proposals (such as those to ‘‘establish mandatory retirement for all judges at age 65’’ or to ‘‘open church facilities for community programs’’) seem unlikely to contribute greatly to crime reduction (pp. 153–158, 164). So great a profusion of proposals has a tendency to be counterproductive, weakening the impact that four or five targeted priorities might have. At the same time, proclaiming such unrealistic objectives as the reduction of robbery by ‘‘at least 50 percent’’ within ten years (p. 7) tends to undermine whatever credibility these documents might otherwise possess.

It is not at all clear to whom all the admonitions and injunctions in the various commission reports were addressed. Who, for example, was supposed to respond to the 1967 President’s Commission’s exhortations to ‘‘expand efforts to improve housing and recreation’’ or to ‘‘create new job opportunities’’ (pp. 293–294)? Sometimes unspecified ‘‘civic and business groups and all kinds of governmental agencies’’ are apostrophized (p. xi). Or, even less specifically, ‘‘all Americans’’ or ‘‘the citizens of this country’’ are called on to ‘‘work to bring about the necessary changes’’ (U.S. Department of Justice, National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, p. 4). Most often the recommendations seem, like Longfellow’s arrow, to be shot into the air to fall to earth ‘‘I know not where.’’

How is it that intelligent and responsible people produce these grandiose manifestos? The trouble is that national commissions are invariably problem specific. Yet the intractability of the American crime problem lies in its intimate connection with a multitude of other problems, such as race, poverty, unemployment, and drug abuse. It requires a leap of faith to believe that the criminal justice system can somehow surgically remove all the criminogenic elements from this complex of interrelated problems.

There is another aspect to the matter. Crime commissions are assigned to study a single problem in a world where problems are multiple. In the course of their studies they learn how serious their problem is, but they acquire little knowledge of the other ills that beset society. Thus the competition for scarce resources between national afflictions is almost invariably overlooked. This creates a disjunction between the blue-ribbon commission and the national political process, a process that must consider the multiplicity of problems in a multi-problem United States.

To summarize: some crime commissions take years to complete their work, others take months. Some issue huge numbers of volumes, and others produce slim reports. Their common problem is that the federal government can only serve as a limited partner in the administration of criminal justice. No matter how urgent a national issue mugging becomes, for example, the federal response must be limited: when this is the case, it is time to call for the experts and hope they will help. Sometimes they have done so and some times they have not. It would be an occasion for amazement rather than surprise if the United States has seen its last national commission on crime and justice.


  1. ALBANESE, JAY ‘‘Government Perceptions of Organized Crime: The Presidential Commissions, 1967 and 1987.’’ Federal Probation 52 (1988): 58–63.
  2. CAPLAN, GERALD. ‘‘Reflections on the Nationalization of Crime, 1964–1968.’’ Law and the Social Order 3 (1973): 583–635.
  3. CRONIN, THOMAS; CRONIN, TANIA; and MILAKOVICH, MICHAEL E. U.S. v. Crime in the Streets. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981.
  4. HOOVER, HERBERT Memoirs. 3 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1951–1952.
  5. HOOVER, HERBERT Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Herbert Hoover, (1929). Washington, D.C.: Office of the Federal Register, National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration, 1974.
  6. JOHNSON, LYNDON Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson (1965), vol. 2. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Federal Register, National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration, 1966.
  7. MOWRY, GEORGE ‘‘Wickersham, George Woodward.’’ Dictionary of American Biography, vol. 11, supp. 2. Edited by Robert Livingston Schuyler and Edward T. James. New York: Scribner, 1958. Pages 713–715.
  8. NOBILE, PHILIP, and NADLER, ERIC. United States of America v. Sex: How the Meese Commission Lied About Pornography. New York: Minotaur Press, Ltd., 1986.
  9. President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice. The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society. Washington, D.C.: The Commission, 1967.
  10. President’s Commission on Organized Crime. The Impact: Organized Crime Today. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1986.
  11. ROOSEVELT, FRANKLIN The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1938) vol. 1. Special introduction and explanatory notes by President Roosevelt. Compiled by Samuel I. Rosenman. Reprint. New York: Russell & Russell, 1969.
  12. ROSENTHAL, MICHAEL ‘‘The Legislative Response To Marihuana: When the Shoe Pinches Enough.’’ Journal of Drug Issues 7, no. 1 (winter 1977): 61–77.
  13. U.S. Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse. Drug Use in America: Problem in Perspective. Washington, D.C.: The Commission, 1973.
  14. U.S. Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. The Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. New York: Random House, 1970.
  15. U.S. Department of Justice. Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography. Final Report. Washington, D.C.: The Commission, 1986.
  16. U.S. Department of Justice. Attorney General’s Task Force on Violent Crime. Final Report. Washington, D.C.: The Department, 1981.
  17. U.S. Department of Justice. Beyond the Pornography Commission: The Federal Response. Washington, D.C.: The Department, 1988.
  18. U.S. Department of Justice, Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals. A National Strategy to Reduce Crime. Washington, D.C.: The Commission, 1973.
  19. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs. The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society: Looking Back, Looking Forward. Washington, D.C: U.S. Department of Justice, 1997.
  20. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, National Advisory Committee for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Standards for the Administration of Juvenile Justice: Report. Washington, D.C.: The Committee, 1980.
  21. U.S. National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders [Kerner Commission]. Report. Washington, D.C.: The Commission, 1968.
  22. U.S. National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement [Wickersham Commission]. Reports (1930–1931). 15 vols. Reprint. Montclair, N.J.: Patterson Smith, 1968.
  23. U.S. National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. To Establish Justice, to Insure Domestic Tranquility. Washington, D.C.: The Commission, 1969.
  24. WICKERSHAM, GEORGE ‘‘The Work of the National Crime Commission.’’ Report of the Fortyninth Annual Meeting of the American Bar Association Held at Denver, Colorado, July 14–16, 1926. Reports of the American Bar Association, vol. 51. Baltimore: Lord Baltimore Press, 1926. Pages 233–237.
  25. WIGMORE, JOHN ‘‘The National Crime Commission: What Will It Achieve?’’ Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology 16 (1925): 312–315.
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