Gerald R. Ford photo

Special Message to the Congress on Crime.

June 19, 1975

To the Congress of the United States:

I address this message to the Congress on a subject that touches the lives of all Americans: crime.

Two months ago, at the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Yale Law School, I spoke about law and respect for the spirit of the law.

Law makes human society possible. It pledges safety to every member so that the company of fellow human beings can be a blessing instead of a threat. It is the instrument through which we seek to fulfill the promise of our Constitution: "to insure domestic tranquility."

But America has been far from successful in dealing with the sort of crime that obsesses America day and night--I mean street crime, crime that invades our neighborhoods and our homes--murders, robberies, rapes, muggings, holdups, break-ins--the kind of brutal violence that makes us fearful of strangers and afraid to go out at night.

I sense, and I think the American people sense, that we are facing a basic and very serious problem of disregard for the law. Because of crime in our streets and in our homes, we do not have domestic tranquility.

Ever since the first Presidential message on crime, in 1965, strenuous Federal efforts, as well as State and local initiatives, have been undertaken to reduce the incidence of crime in the United States. Yet, throughout this period, crime has continued to increase. Indeed, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's latest estimates are that the rate of serious crime--murder, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and auto theft--was 17 percent higher in 1974 than in 1973. This is the largest increase in the 44 years the Bureau has been collecting statistics.

Since 1960, although billions of dollars have been spent on law enforcement programs, the crime rate has more than doubled. Moreover, these figures reflect only the reported crimes. A study of unreported crime sponsored by the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration indicates that the actual level of crime in some cities is three to five times greater than that reported.

More significantly, the number of crimes involving threats of violence or actual violence has increased. And the number of violent crimes in which the perpetrator and the victim are strangers has also increased. A recent study indicates that approximately 65 percent of all violent crimes are committed against strangers.

The personal and social toll that crime exacts from our citizens is enormous. In addition to the direct damage to victims of crime, violent crimes in our streets and in our homes make fear pervasive.

In many areas of the country, especially in the most crowded parts of the inner cities, fear has caused people to rearrange their daily lives. They plan shopping and recreation during hours when they think the possibilities of violent attacks are lower. They avoid commercial areas and public transit. Frightened shopowners arm themselves and view customers with suspicion.

The individual, political and social costs of crime cannot be ignored. They demand our attention and coordinated action. With the firm support of the American people, all levels of government--Federal, State and local--must commit themselves to the goal of reducing crime.

For too long, law has centered its attention more on the rights of the criminal defendant than on the victim of crime. It is time for law to concern itself more with the rights of the people it exists to protect.

In thinking about this problem, I do not seek vindictive punishment of the criminal, but protection of the innocent victim. The victims are my primary concern. That is why I do not talk about law and order and why I turn to the Constitutional guarantee of domestic tranquility. The emphasis in our efforts must be providing protection for the victims of crime.

In this message, I shall address myself to what I believe the Federal government can and should do to reduce crime. The fact is, however, that the Federal role in the fight against crime, particularly violent crime, is a limited one.

With few exceptions, the kinds of crime that obsess America--murders, robberies, rapes, muggings, hold-ups, break-ins--are solely within the jurisdiction of State and local governments. Thus, while the programs that I will propose in this message will, if enacted, contribute to a safer America, the level of crime will not be substantially reduced unless State and local governments themselves enact strong measures.

I see three ways in which the Federal government can play an important role in combating crime:

First, it can provide leadership to State and local governments by enacting a criminal code than can serve as a model for other jurisdictions to follow and by improving the quality of the Federal criminal justice system.

Second, it can enact and vigorously enforce laws covering criminal conduct within the Federal jurisdiction that cannot be adequately regulated at the State or local level.

Third, it can provide financial and technical assistance to State and local governments and law enforcement agencies, and thereby enhance their ability to enforce the law.


Law Enforcement in a democratic society depends largely upon public respect for the laws and voluntary compliance with them. We do not have and do not want a police state. Respect and compliance are undermined if individuals conclude that law enforcement efforts are ineffective and that crimes may be committed with impunity--conclusions which are buttressed by rapidly rising crime rates and by statistics showing only one arrest for every five serious crimes committed.

A decline in respect for the law leads to the commission of more crimes. The necessity to investigate these additional crimes, prosecute those accused, and punish those convicted places even greater strain on the already overburdened capacities of police, prosecutors, public defenders, courts, penal institutions and correctional authorities. As a consequence, the percentage of offenders apprehended, prosecuted and appropriately sentenced is further reduced. This leads to an even greater decline in respect for the law and to the commission of even more crimes. To succeed in the effort to reduce crime, we must break this spiral. There are two direct ways to attack the spiral of crime. One is through improvements in the law itself. The other is through improvement of the criminal justice system so that it functions more swiftly, surely and justly.

Federal criminal laws should be a model upon which State and local governments can pattern their own laws. At the present time, they are not. These Federal statutes developed haphazardly over the decades. They have been revised here and there in response to changing judicial interpretation. They are complicated, and sometimes conflicting, leaving gaps through which criminal activity too often slips unpunished. Because of their complexity, the laws invite technical arguments that waste court time without ever going to the heart of the question of the accused's guilt or innocence.

For several years, the Federal government has engaged in a massive effort to reform the Federal criminal laws into a uniform, coherent code. The product of this effort was recently introduced in Congress, with wide bipartisan support, as S. 1, the "Criminal Justice Reform Act of 1975."

Since it covers every aspect of criminal law, some of the proposals in this Act have stirred controversy and will undoubtedly precipitate further debate. For instance, concern has been expressed that certain provisions of the bill designed to protect classified information could adversely affect freedom of the press. While we must make sure that national security secrets are protected by law, we must also take care that the law does not unreasonably restrict the free flow of information necessary to our form of government. Responsible debate over this and other provisions of S. 1 will be very useful. Issues can be clarified and differing interests accommodated.

I think everyone will agree, however, that comprehensive reform of the Federal criminal code is needed. Accordingly, as a legislative priority in the Federal effort against crime, I urge the 94th Congress to pass the kind of comprehensive code reform embodied in the Criminal Justice Reform Act.

In connection with this overall effort, let me suggest some specific reforms I believe essential.

The sentencing provisions of current Federal law are, in my judgment, inadequate in several respects, often erratic and inconsistent. Defendants who commit similar offenses may receive widely varying sentences. This lack of uniformity is profoundly unfair and breeds disrespect for the law.

The revision of the criminal code should restore a sense of consistency in sentencing, so that the fine or term of imprisonment imposed by the law relates directly to the gravity of the offense. For example, criminal fines are woefully inadequate and provide little deterrence to offenders whose business is crime--a business profitable enough to support current levels of criminal fines as an ordinary business expense. Other than under the antitrust laws, the maximum fine which can be imposed on serious violators is usually $10,000. That amount is too often not commensurate with the crime. The maximum level should be increased to $100,000, if the defendant is an individual, and $500,000, if the defendant is an organization.

The sentencing provisions of the proposed code should be modified to provide judges with standards under which prison sentences are to be imposed upon conviction. Imprisonment too seldom follows conviction, even for serious offenses. It is my firm belief that persons convicted of violent crime should be sent to prison. Those who prey on others, especially by violence, are very few in number. A small percentage of the entire population accounts for a very large proportion of the vicious crimes committed. Most serious crimes are committed by repeaters. These relatively few persistent criminals who cause so much worry and fear are the core of the problem. The rest of the American people have a right to protection from their violence.

Most of the victims of violent crimes are the poor, the old, the young, the disadvantaged minorities, the people who live in the most crowded parts of our cities, the most defenseless. These victims have a valid claim on the rest of society for protection and personal safety that they cannot provide for themselves; in a phrase, for domestic tranquility.

Imprisonment too seldom follows conviction for a felony. In the 1960's, crime rates went higher, but the number of criminals in prison, state and federal, actually went down. A study of one major jurisdiction showed that of all convicted robbers with a major prison record, only 27% were sent to prison after conviction.

There should be no doubt in the minds of those who commit violent crimes-especially crimes involving harm to others--that they will be sent to prison if convicted under legal processes that are fair, prompt and certain.

I propose that incarceration be made mandatory for (1) offenders who commit offenses under Federal jurisdiction using a dangerous weapon; (2) persons committing such extraordinarily serious crimes as aircraft hijacking, kidnapping, and trafficking in hard drugs; and (3) repeat offenders who commit Federal crimes--with or without a weapon--that cause-or have a potential to cause personal injury. Exceptions to mandatory imprisonment should apply only if the judge finds and specifies in writing one or more of the following: that the defendant was under 18 when the offense was committed, or was mentally impaired, or was acting under substantial duress, or was implicated in a crime actually committed by others and participated in the crime only in a very minor way. I have asked the Attorney General to assist the Congress in drafting this modification to the sentencing provisions of S. 1. Since most violent crime is in the jurisdiction of State and local criminal courts, I call upon the States to establish similar mandatory sentencing systems. Too many persons found guilty of serious, violent crimes never spend a day in prison after conviction.

I would emphasize that the aim of this program of mandatory imprisonment is not vindictive punishment of the criminal, but protection of the innocent victim by separating the violent criminal from the community. These victims-most of whom are old or poor or disadvantaged--have a valid claim on the rest of society for the protection and the personal safety that they cannot provide for themselves.

Reasonable mandatory minimum sentences can restore the sense of certainty of imprisonment upon which the deterrent impact of criminal law is based. Mandatory sentences need not be long sentences; the range of indeterminacy need not be great. In fact, wide disparities in sentences for essentially equivalent offenses give a look of unfairness to the law. To help eliminate that unfairness, Federal appeals courts should be given some authority to review sentences given by Federal trial court judges--to increase or reduce them so that the punishments will be more nearly uniform throughout the Federal system. I am also asking the Attorney General to review this problem to ensure that the Federal sentencing structure, which is now based on the indeterminate sentence, is both fair and appropriate. Among other things, it may be time to give serious study to the concept of so-called "flat time sentencing" in the Federal law.

In addition to reform of the criminal law, we must improve the manner in which our criminal justice system operates. Effective deterrence to law-breaking is currently lacking, in part because our criminal justice system simply does not operate effectively.

A logical place to begin discussion of such improvement is the prosecutor's office, for it is there that important decisions are made as to which offenders should be prosecuted, what cases should be brought to trial, when plea bargains should be struck and how scarce judicial resources should be allocated. Many prosecutors' offices currently lack the manpower or management devices to make those decisions correctly. Prosecutors often lack information on a defendant's criminal history and thus cannot identify habitual criminals who should be tried by experienced prosecutors and, if convicted, sent to prison. In too many cases, they lack efficient systems to monitor the status of the numerous cases they handle. If improved management techniques could be made available to prosecutors, the likelihood of swift and sure punishment for crime would be substantially increased.

At the Federal level, last September I directed the Department of Justice to develop and implement a program to deal with career criminals, with the objectives of (1) providing quick identification of persons who repeatedly commit serious offenses, (2) according priority to their prosecution by the most experienced prosecutors, and (3) assuring that, if convicted, they receive appropriate sentences to prevent them from immediately returning to society once again to victimize the community.

Programs to deal with habitual criminals will be encouraged at the State and local levels through the use of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration model programs and discretionary grants already underway.

To illustrate the nature of this problem, let me point out that in one city over 60 rapes, more than 200 burglaries and 14 murders were committed by only 10 persons in less than 12 months. Unfortunately, this example is not unique.

The results of a repeat offender project recently launched in the Bronx County District Attorney's Office, City of New York, are hopeful. The first year's experience showed a 97 percent felony conviction rate and a reduction of time in case disposition from an average of 24 months to an average of three months. In addition, prison sentences resulted in 95 percent of the career criminal cases prosecuted.

A second improvement in the criminal justice system may be obtained by diverting certain first offenders--not all, but some--into rehabilitation programs before proceeding to trial. The Department of Justice has begun a pilot program of this kind designed to achieve two important goals. First, it will seek to reduce the caseloads of Federal courts and prosecutors through expeditious treatment of offenders who are good prospects for rehabilitation. Second, it will seek to enable the offenders who successfully satisfy the requirements of the diversion programs to avoid criminal records and thus increase the likelihood that they will return to productive lives.

Experimentation with pretrial diversion programs should continue and expand. However, careful efforts must be taken to prevent these programs from either treating serious offenders too leniently, or, on the other hand, violating defendants' rights. By coupling this pretrial diversion program with a mandatory term of imprisonment for violent offenders, we will make sure that offenders who deserve to go to prison will go to prison. At the same time, those who may not need imprisonment will be dealt with quickly and in a way that minimizes the burden on the criminal justice system.

The criminal and civil caseloads in trial and in appellate courts have grown over the years, while the number of judges assigned to handle those cases has not kept pace. In 1972, the Judicial Conference of the United States recommended the creation of 51 additional Federal District Court judgeships in 33 separate judicial districts across the country. Senate hearings on legislation incorporating this proposal were conducted in 1973. To date, however, the legislation has not been scheduled for floor action. The increasing needs of the Federal courts make this measure an urgent national necessity of a nonpartisan nature--for justice delayed is too often justice denied. In addition, seemingly technical but important reform in the Federal criminal justice system can be achieved by expanding the criminal jurisdiction of United States Magistrates. This reform will enable the relatively small number of Federal judges to focus their efforts on the most significant criminal cases. The Criminal Justice Reform Act contains a provision that will achieve that result, and I am giving it my specific support.

When a defendant is convicted, even for a violent crime, judges are too often unwilling to impose prison sentence, in part because they consider prison conditions inhumane. Moreover, a cruel and dehumanizing penal institution can actually be a breeding ground for criminality. In any case, a civilized society that seeks to diminish violence in its midst cannot condone prisons where murder, vicious assault and homosexual rapes are common occurrences.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons has embarked on a program to replace large, outdated prisons with smaller, more modern ones. The Bureau has seven new corrections institutions of this sort under construction. All are designed to be civilized places that can be governed effectively by the wardens and correctional officers rather than by the most brutal and inhuman prisoners. In addition, the Bureau is opening new institutions in three major cities to replace overcrowded, antiquated local jails which formerly housed Federal prisoners awaiting trial. The program to improve Federal prisons must be paralleled by State efforts, because the problem of decrepit prison facilities that are hothouses of crime is worst at the State and local level. Unless prisons are improved, many judges will only reluctantly commit convicted offenders to them, even if they are guilty of serious crimes and have previous criminal records.

I know that grave questions have been raised by qualified experts about the ability of the corrections system to rehabilitate offenders. These are important and serious questions. They go to the very heart of the corrections system. While the problem of criminal rehabilitation is difficult, we must not give up on our efforts to achieve it, especially in dealing with youthful offenders. Crime by young people represents a large part of crime in general. The 1973 statistics indicate that 45 percent of persons arrested for all crimes are under 18 years of age. Whatever the difficulty, we must continue our efforts to rehabilitate offenders, especially youthful offenders. To do less would be to write off great numbers of young people as unsalvageable before they have even come of age. I have directed the Attorney General, as Chairman of the Cabinet Committee on Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation, to work in close cooperation with the Secretary of Labor, the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare and other concerned agencies of the Executive Branch to ensure that the Federal government is making the best possible use of its resources in this crucial area.

Whatever the corrections system might accomplish in rehabilitating offenders while they are in prison will be lost if the individual leaves prison and cannot find a job, simply because he has been convicted of a crime. I urge employers to keep an open mind on the hiring of persons formerly convicted of crimes. The U.S. Civil Service Commission currently administers a program designed to prevent Federal employers from unjustly discriminating against ex-felons. I am directing the Commission to review this program to ensure that it is accomplishing its objectives. I am also calling on the National Governors Conference to consider steps the States can take to eliminate unjustified discriminatory practices. Giving ex-offenders who have paid their penalty and seek to "go straight" a fair shake in the job market can be an effective means of reducing crime and improving our criminal justice system.

In addition to this general effort to reform and improve the criminal justice system, the Federal law should be specifically revised to take into greater account the needs of victims of crime. They, as well as the general public, must be made aware that the government will not neglect the law-abiding citizens whose cooperation and efforts are crucial to the effectiveness of law enforcement.

I urge the Congress to pass legislation to meet the uncompensated economic losses of victims of Federal crimes who suffer personal injury. In order to promote the concept of restitution within the criminal law, the monetary benefits should come from a fund consisting of fines paid by convicted Federal offenders.


As I pointed out initially, except in limited circumstances, street crime is a state and local law enforcement responsibility. There is a dimension to this problem, however, that cannot be adequately dealt with on just the state and local levels. Criminals with handguns have played a key role in the rise of violent crime in America. Hundreds of policemen have been killed in the past decade through the use of handguns by criminals. The most effective way to combat the illicit use of handguns by criminals is to provide mandatory prison sentences for anyone who uses a gun in the commission of a crime.

In addition, the federal government can be of assistance to state and local enforcement efforts by prohibiting the manufacture of so-called Saturday Night Specials that have no apparent use other than against human beings and by improving Federal firearms laws and their enforcement.

At the same time, however, we must make certain that our efforts to regulate the illicit use of handguns do not infringe upon the rights of law abiding citizens. I am unalterably opposed to federal registration of guns or the licensing of gun owners. I will oppose any effort to impose such requirements as a matter of federal policy.

Nonetheless, we can take steps to further guard against the illicit use of handguns by criminals.

Current Federal gun laws should be revised to provide that only responsible bona fide gun dealers be permitted to obtain Federal licenses to engage in the business of selling firearms. Licenses to sell firearms should also be withheld from persons who have violated State laws, particularly firearms laws. Additional administrative controls over the sale of handguns, including a ban on multiple sales, will help to establish dealer responsibility in stopping illicit gun trafficking. A waiting period between the purchase and receipt of a handgun should be imposed to enable dealers to take reasonable steps to verify that handguns are not sold to persons whose possession of them would be illegal under Federal, State or applicable local laws.

Second, I have ordered the Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which has primary responsibility for enforcing Federal firearms laws, to double its investigative efforts in the Nation's ten largest metropolitan areas. This action will assist local law enforcement authorities in controlling illegal commerce in weapons. I have directed, therefore, that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms employ and train an additional 500 investigators for this priority effort.

Third, the domestic manufacture, assembly or sale--as well as the importation-of cheap, highly concealable handguns should be prohibited. These so-called "Saturday Night Specials" are involved in an extraordinarily large number of street crimes. Most have no legitimate sporting purpose. They are such a threat to domestic tranquility that we should eliminate their manufacture and sale entirely.

These recommendations go to the very heart of the problem of handgun abuse. If enacted, they should add significantly to the efforts of State and local law enforcement authorities to prevent the criminal use of handguns.

There are several other areas in which Federal law and enforcement can be improved to strike at those who have made crime a business.

The leaders of organized crime can be prosecuted under current Federal law only when it can be shown that they participated in a specific offense, such as gambling, loan-sharking or narcotics. A reformed criminal code should strike directly at organized criminal activity by making it a Federal crime to operate or control a racketeering syndicate. This revision will make the criminal law apply to organized crime leaders who seek to conceal their role in the syndicate's criminal activities.

Since current Federal laws restrict the government's ability to attack consumer frauds, the statutes punishing fraud and theft should be revised to make Federal prosecution more effective. Pyramid sales schemes--clever confidence games, in other words--should be specifically prohibited. Federal jurisdiction over these frauds should be extended to enable the government to move against them on a nationwide basis.

The protection of constitutionally guaranteed civil rights is a primary duty of the Federal government. Yet, a private citizen can be punished for violating constitutional rights only if he acted in concert with others. Under current law, even if a State official intentionally commits acts that violate an individual's constitutional rights, proof of these acts alone may be insufficient to secure a conviction. Restrictions which prevent our laws from protecting the constitutional rights of Americans should be eliminated.

I am particularly concerned about the illegal trafficking in narcotics and dangerous drugs. These crimes victimize the entire Nation, bringing personal tragedy and family destruction to hundreds of thousands. In addition to the human toll, the property crimes committed to finance addicts' drug habits are estimated at $15 billion each year.

Federal, State and local governments must continue their vigorous law enforcement efforts aimed at major traffickers in narcotics and dangerous drugs. This Administration is committed to maintaining a strong Federal Drug Enforcement Administration to provide leadership in this fight. At the same time, I continue to recognize our responsibility to provide compassionate treatment and rehabilitation programs for the hapless victim of narcotics traffickers.

Recent evidence suggests an increase in the availability and use of dangerous drugs in spite of the creation of special Federal agencies and massive Federal funding during the past six years. I am deeply concerned over these developments and have, therefore, directed the Domestic Council to undertake a comprehensive review and assessment of the overall Federal drug abuse prevention, treatment and enforcement effort to ensure that our programs, policies and laws are appropriate and effective.

Finally, white-collar crime is taking an increasing toll in terms of financial and social costs. The United States Chamber of Commerce recently reported that in 1974 white-collar crime cost the public approximately $40 billion, excluding the costs of price-fixing and industrial espionage. In addition to direct economic losses, white-collar crime can destroy confidence in and support for the nation's economic, legal and political institutions. In recognition of the gravity of the impact of white-collar crime, I have directed the Attorney General to undertake new initiatives to coordinate all Federal enforcement and prosecutorial efforts against white-collar crime.


The Federal government must continue to help State and local governments in carrying out their law enforcement responsibilities. Therefore, I will submit to Congress a bill that will continue the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration through 1981.

The LEAA annually provides millions of dollars of support to State and local governments in improving the overall operation of their criminal justice systems. Additionally, the LEAA serves as a center for the development of new ideas on how to fight crime. Examples of several LEAA innovations have already been noted in this Message. The bill that I will submit will authorize $6.8 billion for LEAA to continue its work through 1981.

Several aspects of the reauthorization bill deserve special mention. It will increase the annual funding authorization for LEAA from $1.25 billion to $1.3 billion. The additional $250 million over five years will enable the agency's discretionary program to place greater emphasis on programs aimed at reducing crime in heavily populated urban areas. It is in these areas that the problem of violent street crime has reached critical proportions. The LEAA "High Impact" program, which is designed to provide additional assistance for cities and counties with high crime rates, has had encouraging success. This additional authorization will permit LEAA to build upon that success.

The bill will also place special emphasis on improving the operation of State and local court systems. Specifically, it will include such improvement within the statement of purposes for which LEAA block grant funds can be utilized. Too often, the courts, the prosecutors and the public defenders are overlooked in the allocation of criminal justice resources. If we are to be at all effective in fighting crime, state and local court systems, including prosecution and defense, must be expanded and enhanced.

In conclusion, I emphasize again that the Federal government cannot, by itself, bring an end to crime in the streets. The Federal government can seek the cooperation and participation of State and local governments. Such cooperation is vitally important to this effort. The cumulative effect of persistent Federal, State and local efforts to improve our laws and eliminate difficulties that encumber our criminal justice system offers the only hope of achieving a steady reduction in crime.

I am confident that, if the Congress enacts the programs that I have recommended, the means available for an effective attack on crime will have been substantially strengthened. I call upon the Congress to act swiftly on these recommendations. I also call upon State and local governments to move rapidly in strengthening their processes of criminal justice. Together, we will restore to this nation that sense of domestic tranquility so essential to the pursuit of happiness.


The White House,

June 19, 1975.

Gerald R. Ford, Special Message to the Congress on Crime. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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