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The President's News Conference

December 27, 1929


THE PRESIDENT. One of the last reports coming into the Department of Commerce shows that the Christmas shopping this year was fully up to that of last year. Of course, there are some exceptions, some down and some up above, but it is a very encouraging result because the mercantile community estimated from the stock exchange collapse they would probably see anything from 10 to 15 percent fall in Christmas shopping, so that as it is up to last year everybody is much encouraged.


Another item is that the surveys being made by the Governors of the various States of the public works that will be undertaken during this next year--they are in 26 States, some of which are only partial--but so far they show a total of about $825 million of public works. That will represent only a portion of the total when all of the surveys are in and when those out of the 26 that are partial are made complete. We are in hopes that they can be made complete so that we can tabulate them and give them to you soon after the first of the year.


Now, you have heard a great deal of discussion on prohibition and law enforcement. I would like to talk to you on the background of that situation, but with the understanding that it is not for quotation, directly or indirectly, or anything else, but merely for your own information. I have been told several times that you would like it--that where I know a subject you would like to have what I believe about it. But I don't care to get into this discussion for no reason.

The problem as I have outlined parts of it is a much more difficult one than appears on the surface. It involves all criminal law [p.485] enforcement. For some 25 years or more the Government has been steadily failing behind in its criminal work. That is attributed by some to the increasing technology and technological character of our court procedure which delays action, and then also to the very natural fact that the population has been growing, and probably more important than any other factor, the very large expansion of the Federal Government's activities into criminal control--not only the prohibition laws but the narcotics and, curiously enough, to an extraordinary degree the interstate thefts of automobiles. That comprises today nearly 15 percent of all the Federal criminal activities. Then we have the Mann Act, which is a contribution, and we have the Immigration Act, which also gives the Federal Government a very considerable area of criminal activity. In any event, the load on the courts and the enforcement machinery of the country has grown tremendously, and the machinery is far behind its load, and you cannot separate one element of that load from another. The effect is that our courts are behind in their work.

There are cases like the District of Columbia, where they are 18 months behind in their criminal docket. It is impossible to enforce the law, . . . when you have to wait 18 months before a criminal can be brought to trial.1 One effect of this enormous piling up of criminal activities of the courts has been the tendency of district attorneys to try to get relief by wholesale confessions, and the net result of that is the establishing of a sort of a licensing system by which the various offenders can go and confess and be assured of a small fine, and that puts them in a position of considerable safety. So we have a tremendous lot of confessions of that kind in progress. We have the whole judicial and enforcement system overloaded as it stands today, and you cannot separate any one segment from the problem.

1 The ellipsis is indicated in the transcript.

The Law Enforcement Commission has been investigating the different phases of this problem with view to arriving at some sort of a broad and effective solution. There are certain steps in it as to which conclusion has been reached, and that involved some very intricate and some very difficult questions. There seems to be some misunderstanding, for [p.486] instance, of the position of district attorney. A district attorney in the main is an official of the Department of Justice to whom cases are brought by various police agencies of the government for him to take into the courts. In the main he is not a police officer--or only in a few directions-nor has he any staff for detective purposes. He cannot go out himself and find a criminal and hail him into court. He has to wait until various instruments of the government bring them to him or bring cases to him. When we come to enforcement of narcotics and others which are carried on by detection forces and some prosecution forces that have been built up, they come to the district attorney bringing the cases. Sometimes they are not well presented, and the district attorney is not able to get effective action. He blames the police or the prosecuting detection agencies, whatever they may be, for his failure, and they in turn blame him and blame the Department of Justice. And so we have a passing of the buck as between these different agencies, and we have the same triangle. We have it from the two passing it to the State governments and back again. That applies to narcotics, automobile traffic, and prohibition, all of them feel that the State has a function there, and if it happens that the local State authority does not want the responsibility he passes it off on the Federal agency and they pass it back to him. Generally, we have a tendency everywhere then to forgo responsibility by passing it off on some agency of the government.

Up to last March I think I am correct in saying that nobody had raised any disturbance about the fundamentals that were involved in this problem. I undertook to see whether we could establish national opinion and some positive definite steps to get at the root of it. It is not a question of arriving at some summary of an idea that is a panacea for all this. I can illustrate in the case of the court. I think there are something like 50,000 prohibition cases in the Federal court. Some 4,000 were brought to trial, and the rest of them pleaded guilty. Thereby cleaning the docket periodically.

You have two or three alternatives. One of them is to add to the number of district courts, which are insufficient to say the least, when the appointments are for life, a sufficient number of judges to act in a police capacity as police magistrates on behalf of the Government. [p.487] Another view is to create some kind of subsidiary courts to the district court. Another proposal has been to create enlarged authority in the court commissioners.

Now any consideration of these alternatives involves the most obtuse constitutional questions as well as practical questions. And some manner by which courts may be set up for minor cases, that are not created for life or permanent--appointments of judges to deal with the cases of congested dockets.

The Law Enforcement Commission has given a very exhaustive consideration to that problem and has prepared their views and material and their reports upon it. They also have, in cooperation with the Federal officials, investigated the question of dual relationships in the Federal Government, and have come to conclusions and made reports on that subject.

And another intricate problem in connection with prohibition is the fact that prohibition is not enforced by the Volstead Law, but by 24 different statutes, extending over 40 years, with a great deal of background to them; and the need for some sort of injunction of that situation in order to effect facile handling of enforcement.

Last June in order to try to get the matter in hand in constructive fashion, I requested that there should be a joint select committee of the House appointed that could cooperate with the Law Enforcement Commission and the Federal Government in working out a program for handling the many different things that have to be undertaken. That proposal passed the Senate 10 or 12 days ago and probably will pass the House early after it reconvenes. The object of having a joint select committee was not to load the responsibility on them, but the fact that there are four and perhaps five separate committees in the House that would need to deal with this problem by virtue of their being functions of' the Government. And there are a number of committees in the Senate, and it would simplify and expedite it if they had a select committee.

It was felt by the Law Enforcement Commission and other officials of the Government that as such a committee was in process it would not be quite courteous to lay down to them the exact ironclad proposals that we have on the side of the administration and in the Law Enforcement [p.488] Commission, but to await their appointments and take up the material and reports which have been prepared, and with the Commission to work out a series of different acts.

From the point of view of the administration, and subject always to the views of that committee, we had four proposals for immediate presentation to that committee:

The first is the method for relieving congestion in the courts.

The second was to transfer the detection and prosecution function of the Prohibition Bureau to the Department of Justice, and then centralize responsibility in one point. That also would probably fill some functions of the Government. In other words, that the Department of Justice should enlarge its processes of detection and take over a very large element of prosecution which now exists in the Prohibition Bureau.

A further proposal there was to utilize the various boards of control into some sort of definite expansion of the Coast Guard so as to avoid overlapping between five different forms of border patrol that now exist, all now more or less conflicting and lacking coordination and cooperation. We have the Customs, and we have the Border Guard [Immigration]; we have Labor, and Prohibition, and Narcotics. I think all of them act in the same manner in the matter of border patrol.

A fourth proposal there is to see what might be done by coordination.

Then a further strengthening of the situation by increasing the staff in the district attorneys' office which the Attorney General has asked. In fact, he has asked for it in the Deficiency Bill. All of the district attorneys are under equipped with staff at the present moment to carry on the functions they are now performing.

A still further step was in the direction of improved personnel. That implies payments of salaries by which adequate personnel can be maintained. That is not such a large item, but it is an important one.

In other words, here are a series of steps that have been worked out by careful investigation all along the line, having regard for fundamental problems involved, to go before Congress at as early a date as possible for action. That does not comprise by any means the whole of the questions involved. There is a very large question here of what procedure should be on the question of cooperation with the States, and [p.489] they will have to form subsequent steps, and they are being investigated in as exhaustive a fashion as possible as to what can be arrived at. By and large problems of this character can only be adequately founded if they are based on a very careful examination and research into what has gone on before, as to what are the broad problems involved--and it cannot be hurried up overnight. That the various agencies are ready to present the material and reinforce it as to five important steps is a worthy accomplishment of some 6 or 7 months labor.

Now in the Government there has been a very distinct tightening up of activities all along the line. A great many changes have been made in officials throughout the country that are beneficial, but to secure real and effective action there must be legislation in the nature or reorganization of these vital questions. The Federal Government obviously can have just one object in view, and that is to secure an adequate enforcement of the law, whatever it is. And that is being undertaken, and will be much more possible of successful action when we have cleared up a number of things which have arisen from handicapped effective action.

That then is the situation in the background, and about all that I can present on the subject. I cannot go into the constitutional questions that affect the expansion of the courts, but I think new and successful methods have been worked out as to possibilities, and are ready for submission to Congress.

We are not arriving at any sudden determination, and it is not the policy of this administration to enter upon programs in connection with law enforcement. I believe the enforcement of the law must be built up step by step in the spirit of the men who have the problem in their hands; that it must be built up in the spirit of the people, and that when one begins to enter upon changes in our whole judicial and enforcement system we must enter upon them with an adequate consideration of a century and a half of background of constitutional authority, and a proper consideration of what makes for constructive development, and not for dramatics and sudden onslaught and fire of one kind or another.

Q. Has the Law Enforcement Commission given you any indication of when it expects to finish its report, Mr. President?

THE PRESIDENT. The Law Enforcement Commission has been ready for a month.

Q. May we use the fact that the Commission is ready with this report ?

THE PRESIDENT. No, I would rather you would not. The Commission will have something to say for itself. I gave these discussions of this subject because I thought you would like to have my point of view and clarify your own minds on it.

Q. Do I understand that we are not to use the fact that the Commission is ready to report on this ?

THE PRESIDENT. You are not to use this as from me. I do not know whether it has been stated from the Commission itself. They will be stating that shortly.

Note: President Hoover's seventy-seventh news conference was held in the State, War, and Navy Building at 4 p.m. on Friday, December 27, 1929. The President's offices were moved to that building after a Christmas eve fire in the executive office wing of the White House (see Item 328).

Herbert Hoover, The President's News Conference Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/208738

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