Thursday, December 7, 2017

Commemorating the National Conference on Crime

At Washington, D.C.'s Memorial Continental Hall, a distinguished group of federal officials, legal academics, and law enforcement representatives gathered to discuss crime prevention strategies. They traded the latest police investigation techniques, expressed concerns about the exploding narcotics trade, and debated the effects that media coverage of crimes has on society. While it sounds like this could be happening right now, it was actually at the Attorney General's National Conference on Crime, which took place more than 80 years ago: December 10-13, 1934.

Attorney General Homer S. Cummings (biography) announced the conference plan in July 1934, shortly before boarding a ship from Los Angeles to Hawaii ("in connection with land condemnation proceedings of the government," according to the Chicago Tribune). The Wall Street Journal reported that the planned December "crime parley" would include discussion of "prisons, paroles, bar ethics, and other problems." Throughout the fall, organizers arranged a notable group of speakers (including President Franklin D. Roosevelt and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, whose addresses would be broadcast to the nation on every major radio network). Attendees included state and local government officials, university presidents and law school professors, and representatives from law enforcement agencies and news organizations.

Duke Law School had a particularly important connection to this event: Justin Miller, on a leave of absence that year from his duties as Law School Dean while serving as Special Assistant to the Solicitor General, helped to organize the Conference on Crime. Dean Miller served as the conference's official Secretary, calling sessions to order and overseeing audience discussions. Dean Miller was also recognized during the conference for his seven-year tenure as Chairman of the American Bar Association’s Criminal Law Section.

The Proceedings of the Attorney General's Conference on Crime can be found in the library at KF9223 .A17 1934 or online in HeinOnline. Among the fascinating discussions and prepared remarks are "Firearms: An Address" by former Massachusetts Attorney General J. Weston Allen, who described planned legislation to implement registration requirements for the permit or purchase of firearms, all of which had been thwarted by the lobbying of the National Rifle Association. In "Why Print Crime News?" Cleveland Plain-Dealer editor Paul Bellamy defended newspapers from criticism that the coverage of crime stories glamorized crime, inspired juvenile delinquency, and impeded police investigations. In "Importance of Criminal Statistics," University of Pennsylvania sociology professor Thorsten Sellin lamented the difficulty in finding reliable state and local crime statistics, with even the federal government’s relatively-new Uniform Crime Reports publication "handicapped by the poverty of local records [and] lack of complete cooperation" – issues which persist into the present day.

In his closing address to the conference (also available at the DOJ website), Attorney General Cummings stated "It would be idle, of course, to expect that the problem of crime could be solved by a single conference or, indeed, by a series of conferences, or, for that matter, in our generation." The continued relevance of many of the issues at hand certainly proves his point, but the 1934 conference is a fascinating look back at how law enforcement and legal professionals in the Depression era handled many of the same concerns which face American society today.