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Crime has been a part of American society since its beginnings. As more people moved to cities during the 19th century to work in factories, crime rates rose in the United States, so that by the beginning of the 20th century, the issue of crime was receiving more attention from the public than ever before. Questions regarding the source of crime and the best means to curb crime continue to be some of the most discussed topics among both politicians and ordinary citizens. The past century has seen crime rates skyrocket, as organized crime caused an overall increase in the number of crimes committed in America and the brutality of many crimes.

Organized crime in the early 20th century centered around gangs that extorted money from local merchants and businessmen for "protection." If the gangs were not paid protection money, citizens often found themselves the victim of a crime, usually committed by the gang itself. The passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920 opened whole new vistas for crime in the United States. The Eighteenth Amendment initiated the Prohibition era, which banned the manufacture or sale of alcoholic beverages. Many in America objected to Prohibition, and gangs seized the opportunity to organize large-scale alcohol manufacturing, transportation, and distribution networks. Gangsters opened clubs, replete with drinking, dancing, and gambling during Prohibition that even ordinary citizens attended.

Prohibition, which remained the law until 1933, gave an air of legitimacy to organized crime and turned many small-time operators into millionaires. Chicago underworld boss Al Capone allegedly averaged a $60 million annual income during the 1920s, and New York mob boss Meyer Lansky jubilantly proclaimed of his criminal organization, "We're bigger than U.S. Steel!" Competition among gangs led to high incidences of fighting, kidnapping, and murder as groups battled for control of a neighborhood or crime network. Responding to both illegal liquor and gang violence, the federal government enlisted J. Edgar Hoover to direct the operations of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 1924. Under Hoover, federal agents attacked the gangs with raids on breweries, distilleries, distribution centers, and speakeasies. The FBI had only limited success in cracking down on organized crime, however, which continued to flourish and expand even after the end of Prohibition.

By the 1950s, organized crime had infiltrated many aspects of American society and controlled all sorts of illegal ventures, like prostitution, gambling, money laundering, and drugs. Gangs had given way to the Mafia, an informal network of several Italian-American crime families that ran large and brutal crime syndicates in many U.S. cities, particularly Chicago and New York. The Mafia held enormous power and prestige for several decades, and many Americans viewed them as all-powerful and unstoppable. However, the power of the Mafia, although still strong in the United States, has been undermined in recent years by the drug trade, which during the 1980s and 1990s spread to hundreds of members of the crime underworld that were outside of the Mafia's dominion. Although organized crime originally controlled the drug trade, drugs quickly got beyond even the Mafia bosses' management abilities.

Other than Prohibition, the introduction and dissemination of drugs has had the biggest impact on crime in the United States. Prevalent among all classes of society, drug use leads to a myriad of other crimes, including robbery, theft, and murder. The rise of drugs has also led to an increase in guns in American society, prompting many to question America's policies toward gun ownership. The issue of gun control has received tremendous national attention in the past 20 years and continues to spark fierce debate among Americans.

By the 1990s, drugs had become a multibillion dollar business in the United States, with the drug traffic controlled by various local drug lords who ran violent gangs and seemed to be beyond the reach of most law enforcement officials. The most effective means of waging the war against drugs (and all of the crime associated with drugs) remains highly controversial. Society has also wrestled with the issue of how best to deal with criminals and whether society should attempt to punish criminals or rehabilitate them. In particular, the use of the death penalty has been increasingly controversial as the century has worn on, aided by such high-profile executions as in the Sacco and Vanzetti case in 1927 or the executions of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in 1953. In the late 1990s, the death penalty came in for even greater scrutiny after several death row inmates successfully petitioned to have their cases opened based on advancements in the technology surrounding DNA analysis in which they were subsequently proved innocent. Such findings have prompted a few governors to even suspend the death penalty in their states so that the entire capital punishment procedure can be reexamined.

The issue of both criminals' rights and victims' rights have also received more and more public attention in recent decades. The 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s saw great strides in the protection of criminals' rights, particularly through the work of Chief Justice Earl Warren's Supreme Court. The Miranda warnings and rulings to make juries as impartial as possible have gone far to protect criminals' rights to a fair trial. In the 1980s and 1990s, a backlash against increased protection for criminals led to the formation of a victims' rights movement and the adoption of tougher crime laws. As seen in the passage of Megan's Law, both the public and the government made a definitive statement in support of the rights of people to protect themselves from criminals. How far both victims' rights and criminals' rights should extend continues to spark debate in the United States as Americans attempt to preserve the balance between the rights of the individual and the rights of the community.

Overall, federal and state policies regarding crime and criminals have become less tolerant over the past 20 years, as the public has grown increasingly frustrated with the nation's crime rate. The effect of this get-tough attitude on crime is debated, but the changes have had profound effects on the U.S. criminal justice system and on state governments.

The concern over crime emerged as an important political issue in the 1960s, encouraging President Lyndon B. Johnson to declare a "war on crime" and President Richard Nixon to campaign for "law and order." Despite this rhetoric, the concern over crime only intensified in the late 1970s and 1980s. One of the primary ways that federal and state governments responded was by introducing harsher penalties on criminals. At both levels of government, there was a move throughout the 1980s to replace indeterminate sentencing rules with determinate ones to ensure that convicted criminals did not return quickly to the streets. In addition, penalties for many types of crimes were strengthened, especially drug violations.

The pressure to crack down on criminals continued in full force into the 1990s and led many states to enact tough mandatory sentences for repeat offenders. One of the best known reforms was the introduction of the "three strikes and you're out" policy, which imposes life sentences on individuals found guilty of their third felony offenses. Three-strikes policy was later incorporated into the Federal Crime Control Act of 1994. Many states also enacted victims' bills of rights that focused on giving greater attention during criminal proceedings to the plight of crime victims.

The result of these policies has been an explosion in the number of persons incarcerated in U.S. prisons, with some studies estimating that the total number of people imprisoned has tripled over the past 15 years, reaching close to 1 million prisoners. The growth in the prison population has in turn forced a massive increase in spending on corrections. From 1975 to 1994, the total amount of money spent by federal, state, and local governments on corrections rose from $4 billion to $30 billion. The increase has been particularly difficult for state governments, which have been forced to channel larger proportions of their budgets to corrections despite economic hard times in the early part of the decade. A large share of this money has gone to the construction of new prisons. The state of California, for instance, has built 18 new prisons since the mid-1980s. The number of federal prisons has risen from 43 to 77 since 1982.

Despite the building boom, the pace of prison construction has not kept up with the growing incarceration rate. The result is that many state prisons have become increasingly overcrowded. Although states continue to build new prisons, the costs associated with corrections have assumed such a large percentage of state budgets that many states are beginning to consider ways to reform the criminal justice system.

Proposals for reforming the system vary considerably, from increased police presence in the community to the decriminalization of some drugs. Some reformers also call for more spending on education and social welfare programs as a way to reduce the social problems that lead to crime. One of the most popular reform proposals to reduce costs and overcrowding in the prisons is the introduction of alternative types of sentencing that allow criminals to remain in the community but require them to be closely monitored. Finally, many advocates argue that states should allow private companies to run their prisons as a means to reduce costs.


Further Reading

Kender, Suzanne Elizabeth, ed., Crime in America, 1996; Keve, Paul W., Crime Control and Justice in America: Searching for Facts and Answers, 1995; McGuigan, Patrick B., and Jon S. Pascale, eds., Crime and Punishment in Modern America, 1986; Sutherland, Edwin H., and Donald R. Cressey, Principles of Criminology, 1986.
MLA Citation

"crime." American History. ABC-CLIO, 2011. Web. 26 May 2011.

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