The modern view of crime is that it is not a thing apart, like cancer; not something which can be isolated and treated as a single phenomenon by such simple devices as punishment and prison walls. It is one manifestation of a complex set of forces in society; it is as complex as the environment which influences it; it is affected by the transition in business practices and morality; it is related to the gang life of children; it is influenced by inventions, notably by the automobile. The multiplication of laws, the presence of poverty and the overcrowding of urban areas are part of its background. While crime is the net resultant of exceedingly complex forces, it has specific feature which can be dealt with, as has been shown in the series of special report from the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement.

Whether crime is increasing or not is difficult to determine. Those who know most about the subject hesitate to say that there has been a “crime wave,” and where it has occured. The collection at regular intervals of reliable and comparable statistics of crime and the various phases of it treatment and control has been sadly neglected in this country. One step toward dealing with crime is to get reliable information about its various manifestations. It has been possible, however, by selecting several state and cities which have fairly reliable statistics of crime to secure some indications as to trends, particularly since the various series run somewhat parallel. The index number of arrests per capita of adult population (after the subtraction of those for traffic, automobile law offenses and drunkenness) in 7 selected cities were 80 in 1900,96 in 1910, 100 in 1920, 139 in 1925 and 110 in 1930. The data seem to show an increase in crime since the beginning of the century, but hardly a crime wave, if by that is meant an extraordinary rise in the number of criminal acts committed.

As to the total amount of crime, probably about 16 major offenses are committed in a year per 1,000 population in the smaller and larger cities. These are crimes reported to the police, which may not be a complete list. For the total population the rate would not be so high, since the very large rural population is not included, and there the rates are known to be lower.

To a certain extent crime is a creation of the changing regulations of society and of the attempts to enforce them. The more rule there are to break the larger is the number broken. Much law breaking arises, for instance, in the attempt to prohibit or regulate gambling, prostitution, or selling intoxicating beverages. Laws concerning these types of behavior vary from time to time and from country to country. The number of criminal laws is increasing. There has been a growth of about 40 percent in the 30 years from 1990 to 1930 in selected states as measured by sections in their criminal codes. Society seems to have a penchant for multiplying rules. The number of sections in the constitution and by-laws of the New York Stock Exchange increased 46 percent from 1914 to 1925, and the North Central Association of Colleges and Universities added 33 percent to the number of sections in its governing standards in the 18 years from 1912 to 1930.

This tendency to make rules and regulations is itself a significant phase of modern life and it stands out boldly against the pioneer background of America, where relatively few organizational rules existed or where they were changed le frequently. Rules multiply through thetranslation of customs into written regulations. This formal change is not the whole story; for it would seem that the process of social change itself leads to more regulations. New inventions, social or other, call for new standardizations of behavior in cases where tradition provides little guidance. Moreover the process of social change probably encourages rule making. Conformity to new regulations takes time to learn; it is a part of the complex adjustments to the increasing heterogeneity of society. Recent rules usually lack the established character of laws of the past.

There seems little prospect that the task of making new rules, revising old ones, and enforcing both sets will ever be finished, or that the problem of dealing with law breakers will grow less important. A society without crime appears more remote than a society without poverty. The number of prisoners committed for the more serious offenses has increased steadily in proportion to the population. Even though this may in part mean merely greater efficiency in apprehending and convicting offenders, we are in no position to say that the number of these more serious crimes is decreasing. Fines, however, are more predominant among the penalties inflicted. In Massachusetts they increased from 67 percent in 1910 to 87 percent in 1930.

Organized crime is a very serious phase of this general issue. Criminals who operate in significant numbers and repeat their acts organize for the purpose. Crime is in a way their business. Thus law breakers in other respects have taken over the “business” of bootlegging, gambling and prostitution, as well as robbery, kidnaping and blackmail and other crimes for profit. One can understand how illegal distilling of liquor in mountains, or how piracy on the high seas flourishes in isolation; but how illegal business can be carried on extensively in the heart of a city is less obvious. One explanation is that the organized gangs of criminals avoid contact with the law when possible, but where contact is unavoidable they seek to control the agencies of the law. The methods of organized crime are sometimes modeled after effective business techniques, in combination with many of the worst criminal practices. Racketeering, an especially insidious form of organized crime for profit, has grown up in many cities since the war. This attempt to control prices by violence instead of by business pressure levies a heavy tribute on the consumer and on the business activity concerned; and this appearance of the criminal in a dominating role over small business enterprise is a serious menace. Organized crime in general, however, is by no means a new or post-war phenomenon, although it has grown to unprecedented dimensions since the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment. Bootlegging has put large funds in the hands of criminals.

The problem of the treatment of the prisoner is significant not only as a measure for protection but also for prevention. The most fruitful approach to this problem of treatment for those who have been convicted is not from the point of view of punishment, but from that of segregation according to the types of psychological defects or deviations of the prisoners, or according the types of their social experiences, with a view to further diagnosis of their delinquent tendencies and the provision of care aimed to refit those who are not hardened and hopeless criminals to become safe and self-supporting members of society. The development of a policy in accordance with this view means many radical changes in prison procedure.

Another fruitful and even more important attack is that of prevention, especially for those who pursue crime as a business. A program of prevention is necessarily wide in scope and can not be limited to police, courts, and prisons. It touches politics, elections, business ethics, legislation, gang life among youths, rearing of children, playgrounds housing, the disorganized dwelling areas of cities, medical service and mental hygiene. Indeed almost the whole structure of society is involved.

Source: Recent Social Trends in the United States, an examination of the social state of the United States at the end of the 1920s undertaken at the direction of President Herbert Hoover.