Central Problems of American Criminal Justice

At periodic intervals during the present century the American “crime problem” has aroused agitated public discussion. At these times both publicists and ordinary citizens are likely to assume that the disturbing conditions have suddenly arisen and are wholly unlike anything experienced before. In considering the crime problem, the beginning of wisdom may lie in the discovery that this is a problem with a history. Crime and its control did not suddenly become significant in the late 1960s, at the end of World War II, or even with the launching of the prohibition experiment at the conclusion of the first great war. On the contrary, issues of law and politics engendered by crime and efforts to contain it have characterized our public life since the beginning of the Republic. In the nineteenth century, the restlessness, unruliness, and propensities to violence of American society impressed a succession of distinguished British visitors to our shores, among them Charles Dickens and Mrs. Frances Trollope. At the tum of the century Joseph Conrad pictured us in even darker tones. In his novel, The Secret Agent, he has the nihilistic and half-mad manufacturer of explosives say of us: “[T]heir character is essentially anarchistic. Fertile ground for us, the States, very good ground. The great Republic has the root of the destructive matter in her. The collective temperament is the lawless. Excellent.”