Lyndon B. Johnson photo

Special Message to the Congress on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice.

March 08, 1965

To the Congress of the United States:

Crime has become a malignant enemy in America's midst.

Since 1940 the crime rate in this country has doubled. It has increased five times as fast as our population since 1958.

In dollars the cost of crime runs to tens of billions annually. The human costs are simply not measurable.

The problems run deep and will not yield to quick and easy answers. We must identify and eliminate the causes of criminal activity whether they lie in the environment around us or deep in the nature of individual men. This is a major purpose of all we are doing in combatting poverty and improving education, health, welfare, housing, and recreation.

All these are vital, but they are not enough. Crime will not wait while we pull it up by the roots. We must arrest and reverse the trend toward lawlessness.

This active combat against crime calls for a fair and efficient system of law enforcement to deal with those who break our laws. It means giving new priority to the methods and institutions of law enforcement:

--to our police, who are our front line, both offensive and defensive, in the fight against crime. There is a great need not only for improved training of policemen but for all people to learn about, to understand, and to assist the policeman in his work.

--to our courts, traditionally the symbol and guardian of our cherished freedoms. Local criminal courts are so overloaded that their functioning is impeded and their effectiveness weakened. More courts and judges is one answer, but every possibility of improvement must be explored.

--to our correctional agencies. We cannot tolerate an endless, self-defeating cycle of imprisonment, release, and reimprisonment which fails to alter undesirable attitudes and behavior. We must find ways to help the first offender avoid a continuing career of crime.

No right is more elemental to our society than the right to personal security and no right needs more urgent protection.

Our streets must be safe. Our homes and places of business must be secure. Experience and wisdom dictate that one of the most legitimate functions of government is the preservation of law and order.

Our system rejects the concept of a national police force. The protection responsibilities lie primarily with state and local governments.

That is right and proper.

Yet, crime is no longer merely a local problem. Every city, every state is troubled by the same hard statistical--and human-facts. The extent and seriousness of the problem have made it of great national concern.

Crime is as old as history. It is hardly new to America. But in our increasingly mobile, urban society, crime problems are not only greater, they are immensely more complex.

We have not stood idly by in the face of these problems. Many cities and states, as well as the federal government, have developed new programs reflecting their growing concern.

Yet the crime rate continues to increase. The time has come now, to check that growth--to contain its spread--and to reduce its toll of lives and property.

I believe the way to do so is to give new recognition to the fact that crime is a national problem--and to intensify our crime prevention and crime-fighting at all levels of government.

THE ROLE OF THE INDIVIDUAL The starting point for such efforts is the individual citizen. Law enforcement cannot succeed without the sustained--and informed--interest of all citizens.

It is not enough to reflect our concern over the rise in crime by seeking out single answers or simple answers. They do not exist. The people will get observance of the law and enforcement of the law if they want it, insist on it, and participate in it.

It has been said, for example, that the fault lies with courts which "coddle criminals," or, on the other hand, that police officers do not observe the rights of the individual.

There is misunderstanding at times between law enforcement officers and some courts. We need to think less, however, about taking sides in such controversies and more about our common objective: law enforcement which is both fair and effective. We are not prepared in our democratic system to pay for improved law enforcement by unreasonable limitations on the individual protections which ennoble our system. Yet there is the undoubted necessity that society be protected from the criminal and that the rights of society be recognized along with the rights of the individual.

As Mr. Justice Frankfurter once said, "A democratic society, in which respect for the dignity of all men is central, naturally guards against the misuse of the law enforcement process."

It has been said that the fault lies in poor living conditions, limited education, and the denial of opportunity.

Plainly, laws are less likely to command the respect of those forced to live at the margins of our society. Stability and order have little meaning and small advantage to those who exist in poverty, hopelessness, and despair.

The long-run solution to the view of crime is jobs, education and hope. This is a goal to which this country is now committed. But we should remember that not all crime is committed by those who are impoverished or those denied equal opportunity. In any event, we cannot postpone our responsibilities to act against crimes committed today.

It has also been said that the fault lies in a deep moral decay, particularly among the young; that juvenile delinquency and high crime rates among younger adults have their origins in this decay.

In our increasingly complex society, it is becoming harder to perceive and maintain clear moral values. But the great majority of our young people lead law-abiding, creative lives. We need only look to the spirit which characterizes our youth today--the spirit of the Peace Corps, of VISTA, of commitment to the well-being and welfare of society. While crime by young people in our society is of very serious concern, it involves only a small proportion of our youth.

We must, in short, understand that the reasons for the growth of crime are many and complicated. We must accept hard facts at every turn. But like the related problems of poverty and of education, we must face them squarely if we are to succeed. And we must succeed.

Thus, while recognizing that the basic responsibility rests on local authorities, we must also recognize the burdens they now bear. To assist them in bearing these burdens successfully, I propose:

--increased federal law enforcement efforts;

--assistance to local law enforcement efforts;

--a comprehensive, penetrating analysis of the origins and nature of crime in modern America.

FEDERAL LAW ENFORCEMENT EFFORTS The average citizen is most directly concerned with what is called "crime in the streets". Crime of this kind--robberies, muggings, housebreakings--are the primary law enforcement responsibility of state and local governments. When criminals cross state lines, however, federal enforcement is also available. Thus, federal, state and local investigators may all join to pursue the bank robber, the kidnapper or the auto thief. Federal assistance in these activities has been and can continue to be helpful.

In some areas, however, the Federal Government has a special responsibility--organized crime, narcotic and drug control, regulation of gun sales, and law enforcement activities in the District of Columbia.

1. Organized Crime.

Organized crime is a cancer in the city. It has become an entrenched national industry. It embraces gambling, narcotics, stock and bankruptcy fraud, usurious loans, or corruption of public officials or labor-management relations.

Racketeering feeds on itself. Illegal gambling, for example, channels enormous profits to other criminal arenas. The citizen is the loser.

Organized crime also breeds lesser crime. The police in our large cities know from daily experience how much street crime results, for example, from narcotics addiction.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of organized crime, however, is that it erodes respect for the law. Corrupting a public official may lend respectability to the racketeer, as it destroys the underpinning of law enforcement in a community.

Since 1961, the federal government has responded to this challenge in force. We have secured new legislative authority. We have achieved new levels of cooperation among the 26 different federal law enforcement agencies. We have achieved new prosecutive energy. The result has been a tenfold increase in racketeering convictions.

But this accomplishment represents a mere beginning. Much remains to be done.

Consequently, I am calling on the Attorney General, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the other heads of the federal law enforcement arms to enlarge their energetic effort against organized crime. The Department of Justice will submit legislative proposals to the Congress to strengthen and expand these efforts generally.

I urge the prompt enactment of these measures.

2. Drug Control.

The return of narcotic and marihuana users to useful, productive lives is of obvious benefit to them and to society at large. But at the same time, it is essential to assure adequate protection of the general public.

To meet these objectives, the President's Advisory Commission on Narcotic and Drug Abuse recommended enactment of a federal civil commitment statute to provide an alternative means of dealing with those narcotic and marihuana users likely to respond to treatment and achieve rehabilitation. The Commission also recommended that those penalty provisions of the federal narcotics and marihuana laws requiring mandatory minimum sentences and precluding probation or parole be applied restrictively in order to provide a greater incentive for rehabilitation.

The Justice Department will shortly submit proposals for a federal civil commitment statute to the Congress and for limiting the coverage of the mandatory minimum penalty sentences. The proposals will seek to the fullest extent consistent with the public safety to give offenders a maximum opportunity for return to a normal life.

Increasing illegal sales of psychotoxic drugs, such as barbiturates and amphetamines, must be controlled. These sedatives and stimulants, taken so easily in pill form, have been termed the "dangerous drugs"-- and with good reason. Senseless killings, robberies, and auto accidents have resulted from the radical personality changes induced by the indiscriminate use of these drugs. Because they are less expensive and more available than narcotics, these drugs appeal to a much broader cross-section of our population, particularly the young.

Our existing legal weapons are inadequate. I therefore urge the Congress to enact legislation to control the abuse of these dangerous drugs without constricting their legitimate medical uses.

3. Firearms Control.

Drugs are, of course, only one cause of the rise in violent crime in the United States. Another significant factor is the ease with which any person can acquire firearms. Lee Oswald sent for and received a rifle through the United States mail. I believe that the people of the United States have learned, through the recent tragic loss of President Kennedy the need for strengthened control.

Here the Federal Government's jurisdiction is limited. State and local action will be necessary. But at minimum, we must make effective local regulation of firearms possible by increasing Federal control over interstate shipment of firearms. In addition, limits must be imposed on the importation into this country of surplus military weapons and other used firearms.

I am proposing draft legislation to accomplish these aims. It would amend the Federal Firearms Act to prohibit firearms shipments in interstate commerce except among importers, manufacturers and dealers licensed by the Treasury Department.

Mail-order sales to individuals would thus stop. The legislation would also strengthen the present statutory standards for Treasury Department licenses and prohibit licensees from selling firearms to persons under 21 years of age (or under 18 in the case of rifles and shotguns). Other provisions of this legislation are designed to make it feasible for the States to impose effective controls over firearms within their own boundaries. I urge the Governors of our states and mayors and other local public officials to review their existing legislation in this critical field with a view to keeping lethal weapons out of the wrong hands.

I recommend this legislation to the Congress as a sensible use of Federal authority to assist local authorities in coping with an undeniable menace to law and order and to the lives of innocent people.

4. District of Columbia.

A fourth opportunity for federal leadership is the nation's capital. As I said in my special message on the District of Columbia, we must improve law enforcement and the administration of criminal justice in the District. Washington shares with our large cities the special and acute problems associated with rapid urban population growth.

Both in its own right and as a model for other cities, Washington can and should be a focus for intensive efforts in crime prevention, the detection and prosecution of crimes, rehabilitation, and related activities.

To assist in this effort, I will shortly appoint the commission to which I referred in my message on the District of Columbia.

ASSISTANCE TO LOCAL AUTHORITIES Whatever we may do to strengthen federal law enforcement, the principal enforcement responsibility still rests on state and local governments--and that has become a very large burden indeed.

The cost of operating our police departments has risen by 50 percent in the last five years alone. Yet our law enforcement and corrections personnel are overworked. Our courts are overcrowded. Our penal and rehabilitative facilities and programs are understaffed or underdeveloped. To meet their large and growing burdens, state and local law enforcement agencies must have additional training and technical assistance from the Federal Government.

Federal assistance has long been provided in various forms to local law enforcement. Because of Mr. J. Edgar Hoover's early recognition of the need for such assistance, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has provided a number of valuable services to state and local police organizations. It assists them with training activities and the FBI National Academy in Washington gives comprehensive instructions to state and local career law enforcement officers each year. The Federal Government also provides support for short-term vocational training for police officers and more extensive training in related fields through the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. The Treasury Department provides instruction for narcotics enforcement personnel through the Bureau of Narcotics Training School.

The Federal Government has been giving active support to juvenile delinquency control efforts. Under the Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Offenses Control Act, programs have been developed to provide new approaches to the prevention and control of juvenile delinquency and to train needed personnel. Under this act important studies have shed new light on the complex causes of delinquency.

The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare will shortly submit requests for urgently needed additional appropriations in this field. I support these proposals and request the Congress to act on them favorably and rapidly.

These are present and continuing endeavors. But we must do more. I believe a major opportunity lies in the development and testing of experimental methods of crime control. To this end, I am proposing the Law Enforcement Assistance Act of 1965. This legislation would authorize the Attorney General to assist state, local and private groups to improve and strengthen crime control programs and make generally available information as to their effectiveness.

This Act would bolster present training programs for local law enforcement personnel and would support the development of new training methods. Fighting crime effectively under modern conditions requires professional police who are expertly trained in a variety of skills. The Federal Government now provides financial assistance for research and training in other professions-science, mathematics, foreign languages, medicine, nursing. Trained, professional law enforcement personnel are fully as essential to the preservation of our national health and strength--and no less deserving of increased federal support.

This legislation would also authorize federal support for the development of improved methods of enforcing criminal laws and administering justice. For example, experiments might be undertaken with different kinds and intensity of police coverage in high crime districts in order to learn more about the effective allocation of manpower. The effectiveness of different communication and alarm systems might be studied. By pilot projects in the administration of justice, we may find ways of making the judicial process fairer and speedier and the correctional process more effective.

The dissemination of information about projects supported under the Law Enforcement Assistance Act will be of substantial value to other communities in designing their own crime control programs.

PRESIDENTIAL COMMISSION The proposals which I have discussed are promising immediate approaches to a number of the specific problems of controlling crime. In the longer run we must also deepen our understanding of the causes of crime and of how our society should respond to the challenge of our present levels of crime. Only with such understanding can we undertake more fundamental, far-reaching and imaginative programs.

As the first step, l am establishing the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice. The Commission will be composed of men and women of distinction who share my belief that we need to know far more about the prevention and control of crime. I will ask the Commission to make a comprehensive report to me by the summer of 1966 and to make interim reports when early action on the basis of its recommendations may be possible.

No agency of government has ever in our history undertaken to probe so fully and deeply into the problems of crime in our nation. I do not underestimate the difficulty of the assignment. But the very difficulty which these problems present and the staggering cost of inaction make it imperative that this task be undertaken.

It is of the utmost importance that the people of this country understand what is at stake in controlling crime and its effects. I believe therefore that the Commission should disseminate information on its work and findings and build a broad base of public support for constructive action.

Typical of the examples of important and troubling questions on which I believe the Commission can furnish guidance are --.

(1) How can law enforcement be organized to meet present needs?

In too many instances present divisions of responsibility for law enforcement reflect unexamined precedent rather than practical organization. In addition to exploring improved law enforcement and correctional techniques, the Commission can be helpful in suggesting possible reorganization of law enforcement functions and methods of achieving greater cooperation where there are separate responsibilities.

(2) What steps can be taken to create greater understanding by those involved in the administration of justice at the state and local level of the efforts of federal courts to ensure protection of individual rights?

The Commission should seek understanding of the needs of those responsible for carrying out our criminal laws and the relationship to these needs of the historic protections our Nation has accorded to the accused. The Commission may well serve as a bridge of understanding among all those involved in the fair and effective administration of criminal justice.

(3) Through what kinds of programs can the Federal Government be most effective in assisting state and local enforcement?

The Commission can recommend new and imaginative ways in which the Federal Government can render assistance--without infringing on the primary responsibility of states and localities.

(4) Is the nation as a whole providing adequate education and training opportunities for those who administer the criminal laws?

The Commission should evaluate the programs and institutions now available for law enforcement officers, correctional personnel and both prosecution and defense attorneys and make recommendations on necessary additions.

(5) What correctional programs are most promising in preventing a first offense from leading to a career in crime?

A large proportion of serious crimes is committed by persons who are previous offenders. Thus, reducing the total volume of crime is, to a large extent, a problem of reducing the rate of recidivism. The first offender's initial contact with our correctional system is often a turning point in his life. The Commission should consider how we can best insure that his first contact will be his last.

(6) What steps can be taken to increase public respect for law and law enforcement officers?

In a free land, order can never be achieved by police action alone, no matter how efficient. There must be a high level of voluntary observance of the law and cooperation with public authorities. Citizens too often shun their duty to report crimes, summon assistance, or cooperate with law enforcement in other ways. In the light of recent examples of what happens when private citizens remain bystanders at tragedy, I hope the Commission will suggest means of improving public attitudes toward the individual's sense of responsibility to his community and to his neighbor.

These questions only illustrate those which this Commission must put to itself. It must also

--consider the problem of making our streets, homes and places of business safer;

--inquire into the special problems of juvenile crime;

--examine the administration of justice in our shockingly overcrowded lower courts through which so many citizens are herded wholesale;

--explore the means by which organized crime can be arrested by Federal and local authorities.

In its task, the Commission will not be working alone. In addition to its own staff and subpanels of experts in various fields and disciplines, it will have the close cooperation and support of representatives of the Federal Government.

I have directed the Attorney General, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare and the Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity to work closely with the Commission and to assist it in every possible way. Because of the importance of the Attorney General's responsibilities within the Federal Government for these problems--ranging from investigation and enforcement through administration of the Federal prison system--I anticipate that the Department of Justice and especially its newly created Office of Criminal Justice should take a particularly active role in assisting the work of the Commission.

The Commission also will work closely with representatives of state and local government; with such groups as the American Bar Association, the American Law Institute, state and local bar groups and appropriate law enforcement organizations; and with universities and other institutions and individuals engaged in important work in the social sciences, mental health and related areas.

The task before the Commission is one of consummate difficulty and complexity. But it could scarcely be more important. I hope and expect that its work will be a landmark to follow for many years to come.

CONCLUSION This message recognizes that crime is a national problem.

That recognition does not carry with it any threat to the basic prerogatives of state and local governments. It means, rather, that the Federal Government will henceforth take a more meaningful role in meeting the whole spectrum of problems posed by crime.

It means that the Federal Government will seek to exercise leadership and to assist local authorities in meeting their responsibilities.

It means that we will make a national effort to resolve the problems of law enforcement and the administration of justice--and to direct the attention of the Nation to the problems of crime and the steps that must be taken to meet them.

This effort will involve great difficulties.

It will not produce dramatic, visible results overnight. But it is an effort we must begin now.

I ask the help of Congress. I believe that these actions and proposals are soundly based and give promise of meeting urgent needs of a growing nation. I commend them to the American people and to the Congress and urge their prompt enactment.


The White House

March 8, 1965

Note: See also Items 382 and 526.

Lyndon B. Johnson, Special Message to the Congress on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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