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Corrections: Part VIII – Racial and Migratory Causes of Crime — 1924

Racial And Migratory Causes Of Crime

By: J. E. Hagerty, Dean, College of Commerce and Journalism, Ohio State University, Columbus

A Presentation from the Proceedings Of The National Conference Of Social Work (Formerly National Conference of Charities and Correction) At The Fifty-First Annual Session Held In Toronto, Ontario June 25-July 2, 1924 (p.193)

Ed. Note: In the history of the criminal justice system of the United States there is considerable evidence that social welfare reformers and progressives helped improve the conditions of local jails, reformatories and prisons and the treatment of prisoners. For example, presentations and reports of standing committees at the annual meetings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction during the late 19th century reveal that social welfare leaders and progressives were actively involved in efforts to reform the nation’s criminal justice system.  It was at these annual meetings where leaders of state boards and experts in penology gave presentations and reports describing conditions in prisons and jails and offering proposals for improving them.

The founding fathers of the National Conference of Charities and Correction (1874 – 1898) and its successor, the National Conference Of Social Work, were governor-appointed secretaries or executives of a State Board of Charities, and therefor responsible for oversight and reporting on the conditions of public institutions, including prisons. As a result, conditions of state and local correctional facilities and the treatment of both juvenile and adult felons were among some of the most important topics presented at the early meetings of the National Conference. The presentation below is a later example from the Proceedings of 1924.

I find it impossible to speak of the relative quantity of crime committed at different periods by different classes of people, and committed in different countries, on account of our present statistical facts with reference to crime. Comparisons are often made of the crime committed by the foreign-born and their children as compared with the rest of the American population who are neither foreign-born nor children of the foreign-born. Most of these conclusions are but more or less enlightened guesses with reference to the quantity of crime committed by these classes.

About ten years ago a young man asked me if it were not true that there were more crimes committed in the state of Kansas than any other state in the United States. I told him that I did not know and that it was not possible for anyone else to be able to answer his question successfully. If his informant meant that there were more criminals in penal institutions in Kansas with reference to the population of Kansas than any other state in the American Union, then a number of observations might be made with reference to that conclusion: first, if such were the case, it might be possible that the police system of Kansas was more efficient than the police system of any other state in detecting crime and in arresting criminals; second, it might mean that the courts of criminal justice were more efficient than in other states in successfully prosecuting criminals and sending them to penal institutions; third, it might mean that Kansas has higher standards as to what constitutes crime than other states; fourth, it might mean that men convicted of crime were sent to penal institutions for longer periods than is the case in other American states; fifth, it might mean that probation is used less in Kansas than in other states, in which case, everything else being equal, Kansas will have a higher percentage of men imprisoned. From these observations it will be seen that it is impossible to reason statistically to accurate conclusions with our present state of knowledge. Only the most elementary things with reference to crime may be satisfactorily compared.

A conspicuous case of faulty reasoning from a statistical standpoint may be seen in Lombroso’s book entitled Crime and Its Causes. In concluding that crime increases with education, Lombroso pointed to the state of New Mexico as having a low state of intelligence and at the same time a low percentage of crime. While the people of New Mexico have a low average of intelligence because of the large number of ignorant Mexicans in New Mexico, it is not safe to conclude that the quantity of crime committed in New Mexico at the time Lombroso’s book was written was low, for at this period the police system was not very effective in arresting criminals, and the courts of justice did not have a good record in successfully prosecuting them. Moreover, as New Mexico is a rural rather than an urban state, the quantity of crime committed should be relatively low, as much more crime is committed in cities than in the open country.

The conditions under which the immigrants and their children live in the United States are responsible for a great deal of crime committed by them. Most of the immigrants in the United States are city dwellers, and the majority of them who come to the United States have lived abroad in the country. Crime is very largely a matter of social adjustment. These immigrants who live in the open country abroad and come to the United States and live in cities are compelled to make a twofold adjustment. In the first place they must make the adjustment resulting from going from the country to the city, and in the second place they make the adjustment of transferring their home from one country to another country.

The conditions under which they live abroad are static. They and their ancestors before them have lived in the same community, in most cases the sons following the occupation of the father. These communities remain relatively the same for hundreds of years. The people know what they can do and what they cannot do. The influence of family tradition and a desire to perpetuate a good name keep them within the limits prescribed by law. When they come to this country everything is new. They do not know what they can do and what they cannot do because of ignorance of our laws and institutions. Moreover the social judgment is less keen in making them obedient to the laws. The family tradition and family name mean little or nothing to them in requiring them to live up to a certain standard. Under these circumstances it is much easier for them to become delinquent in America than it was in their homes abroad.

The great majority of the immigrants who come are poor. In living in cities they are compelled to live where rent is cheap; consequently in most cases they live in the shop districts of American cities or in the slums. If they live in the former district, they live where the physical environment is crude and ugly, where there is little in home life and in the physical environment that is uplifting. On the other hand, if they live in the slums of cities, they live in the midst of vice and crime, and the children grow up to manhood and womanhood hardened by their social contacts with the ways of evil. Under these circumstances they are much more likely to be criminal than those who live under more inviting and natural surroundings.

The criminal influence, the narrow and ugly conditions under which the immigrant lives are far worse for his children than for himself. Childhood is a period of playtime. The children of the immigrants who live in the factory district of the American city or in its slums do not enjoy play under normal conditions. The amusement and recreational life is of less significance to the adult than to his children. His habits are already formed. The habits of his children are being formed, and they are being formed under circumstances that result in degradation. Moreover, poverty conditions mean much more to the child than they do to the adult.

In a city of a western state an attempt was once made to eliminate a vice district on the theory that there were many families whose growing children were living in close proximity to vice and crime. Opposition to the elimination of the district arose from some who pointed out that the people who lived there were immigrants, and the presence of vice and crime didn’t mean much to them.

There are other reasons why the children of immigrants are more likely to become criminal than their parents. The child learns the language, the ways, and customs of the country much sooner than his parents. He becomes at once an interpreter of the language, customs, habits of the people, and ways of doing things to his father and mother. The normal relations of parent and offspring are reversed. With many of the children the parent is considered a back number because of lack of knowledge of the language and customs of the country, and the boy and girl are unwilling to accept the judgments of their parents, and the latter lose control over them. The control which should be exercised by parents under any normal home conditions is gone, and children of the immigrant have the problem of adaptation in a new country and under a new environment without the parental help and guidance which the American child enjoys.

It is only since the world-war that we have given very much attention to Americanization, and with much of this I am not in sympathy. I am not in sympathy with the notion that the immigrant should forget and lose the language and the customs and traditions of the country from which he came. Those that are worth, while should be preserved and should be thrown into the melting-pot of traditions, customs, and ideals of the new world. Everything that is worth while should be preserved and made a part of American life.

The foreigner, however, should learn the language of the country and the laws of the country. Much of the immigrant’s crime has been committed through ignorance, from the lack of knowledge of what he can do and what he cannot do.

Many of them too have become embittered because of the class of Americans they have met and the attitude of certain types of Americans toward them. Many Americans have considered the immigrants as fit subjects for exploitation and have gone the limit in exploiting them because of their lack of knowledge of the country and its ways. Many of these who came to America as the land of their dreams have become embittered and have been more prone to commit crime on this account than would otherwise have been the case.

The only Americanization that is worth while is the Americanization which enables the immigrants to come in contact with the best of our people, the Americanization which enables them to learn the language and the customs of our country without forgetting the best in the traditions of the old world, and which enables them to share with us in the privileges and opportunities of American life. Let us take a wholesome attitude toward immigrants, giving them the best opportunities which America affords, and the quantity of crime committed by immigrants and their children will greatly decline.

Source: A Report from the Proceedings Of The National Conference Of Social Work (Formerly National Conference of Charities and Correction) At The Fifty-First Annual Session Held In Toronto, Ontario June 25-July 2, 1924 (p.193) —

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