The Rise and Fall of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology

By Devroye, Jennifer | Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

The Rise and Fall of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology


Devroye, Jennifer, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology


I. INTRODUCTION

On June 7th and 8th, 1909, one hundred and fifty delegates from throughout the United States met at the Northwestern University School of Law to attend the First National Conference on Criminal Law and Criminology (National Conference). Mirroring the nascent field of criminology, invitees ran the gamut of professional affiliations. There were alienists, sociologists, prison wardens, prison doctors, the superintendent of a women's reformatory, a statistician, an Episcopal bishop, and lots of lawyers. The conference's organizing committee, led by John H. Wigmore, Dean of the Northwestern University School of Law, included Roscoe Pound, Municipal Court Judge Harry Olson, (1) and Clarence Darrow. The National Conference was held to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Northwestern University School of Law. Its purpose was to promote cooperation and the exchange of ideas between disciplines concerned with crime and criminals. Roscoe Pound, looking back on the event in 1941, described the National Conference as its organizer John H. Wigmore's "second great stroke" in modernizing criminal law and procedure, which was in "a most unhappy condition" at the time. (2)

The National Conference voted into existence the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology (the Institute). The purpose of the Institute was to foster cooperation between lawyers and scientists to improve criminal laws and the administration of criminal justice. (3) Wigmore was elected its first president. Committees formed at the National Conference included one "to appeal at once to congress for the establishment of a bureau to collect criminal statistics" and another to study British criminal law. (4) Other committees were formed to study topics suggested by the three discussion sections of the National Conference. (5) At the top of a list of study topics suggested by the first section was that of "the complex factors combining to encourage and establish the persistent offender, particularly with reference to hereditary taint and disability." (6)

One of the Institute's first projects was the publication of an official organ (7)--the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (8) (Journal). Other publishing projects included the publication of the Modern Criminal Science Series (Modern Series) of works by European criminologists in translation. The Institute lasted until the Depression. (9) The Journal, which was absorbed by Northwestern University in 1931, (10) celebrates its centennial this year. This Essay examines the history of the Institute itself, particularly its relationship to Italian positivism and to debates over the heritable nature of criminality.

This Essay begins in Part II with a review of the Institute's first year of activities, followed, in Part III, by a consideration of its influential series of translated criminal science monographs in the context of criminological debates of the time. Special attention is paid to Italian positivism and its leading figures, Cesare Lombroso and Enrico Ferri, as well as to degeneracy theory--two highly influential movements during the early years of the Institute. Part IV gives a brief overview of the Institute's influential Modern Series of translations of works by European criminologists. Part V describes difficulties the Institute encountered in funding its projects. Part VI considers how the Institute grappled with questions of the role of biology and heredity in crime--paying particular attention to its special committees on criminal statistics and sterilization, as well as members' attractions to the idea of laboratory study of criminals. Part VII details the fiscal problems that plagued and eventually destroyed the Institute. Part VIII describes the Institute's eleventh-hour shift away from explorations of innate criminality in favor of examinations of sociological factors. The Essay concludes with a consideration of the Institute's legacy. …

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