James D. Calder


The National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, more popularly known as the Wickersham Commission, was embedded in President Herbert C. Hoover’s broader policy initiative to improve the federal criminal justice system. Hoover also believed that the results would provide state and local governments with models for upgrading all other justice systems. President Hoover instructed the chairman, former U.S. Attorney General George W. Wickersham, to assemble a group of leading scholars and the best research findings, mainly from the nascent social sciences, to investigate the causes and costs of crime, Prohibition enforcement, policing, courts and antiquated criminal procedures, and prisons, parole and probation practices, among other topics. Prohibition, it is argued, was not the central focus of the Hoover–Wickersham efforts. Through the morass of divisive and festering Prohibition controversies, however, Hoover and the Wickersham group stayed the course to complete the project in 1931. Ultimately, the Commission’s fourteen reports languished in relative obscurity through years of the Depression, World War II, and the postwar economic boom. They served as a collective summary of the first federal initiative to examine one of America’s most costly social problems. As time passed, they were cited as foundational guideposts in several later federal and state studies, policy initiatives, and agency changes. Recognizing contributions and disappointments in the Commission’s work, the net product set the tone for future studies of the American justice system while it provided the President and the nation with a tool for closing the gap between “brain” and “state.”