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Prohibition and the rise of Organized Crime Essay

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Updated: Nov 29th, 2018


In the 1920s, the United States was facing worrying rates of crime that called for the intervention of the Congress to avert the situation. Different ways of ensuring control of the society and effective prevention of crime were tried. The attempts were faced with numerous challenges that needed to be addressed.

It was a time when the rate of crime was increasing and a solid solution grounded on the established legal mechanisms was sought. The United States Congress had long been consulting to remedy the situation. The solutions were triggered by the fact that gangs at the time looked more organized than the government. In 1920s, a considerable number of the American citizens sought refuge from crime.

An extensive evaluation of the situation and the viable solutions were submitted to the Congress. Prohibition was proposed and an amendment to the constitution was thereby proposed. Subsequently, the Eighteenth Amendment of the United States constitution was put into place. The rationale of having the amendment effected was to control and completely manage crimes related to alcohol.

To further strengthen the Amendment, the Volstead Act was enacted, which imposed stiff penalties to those who disobeyed the Eighteenth Amendment (Cressey and Finckenauer 15). The prohibition period is one of the remarkable eras in the history of organized crime, having sowed the seeds of some of the most infamous crimes today as crime networks proved stronger than state agencies. This essay will show how prohibition encouraged the rise of organized crime.

The period of prohibition derived authority from the United States constitution and the Volstead Act. From the strict wording of the amendment, the rate of alcohol consumption was anticipated to go down. The period of prohibition simply meant that the manufacture, transportation, export, and import of alcohol were unconstitutional and subsequently illegal.

The law was geared towards creating an environment of low crime and corruption. In addition, prohibition was thought to be a clear solution towards massive reduction of social problems. The country was facing high rates of taxes that were used in supporting prisons. Health care and hygiene was expected to improve with the establishment of the prohibition.

It was a strategy to reduce overcrowding in jails by people suspected to have committed alcohol related offences. The effects of prohibition were not imagined during the time of the amendment. The duration preceding the enactment of the Volstead Act and the Eighteenth Amendment had less demand for alcohol. The prohibition eventually increased the demand for alcohol and a chain reaction became inevitable. Vertical monopolies were created by the growing number of mobsters.

These monopolies were mainly set up to control the production and distribution of alcohol. Throughout time, the monopolies became powerful and much of the income earned in the distribution of alcohol was channeled to both legal and illegal businesses. The markets for selling alcohol were largely controlled by the mobsters. Crime rate took a different turn. Groups would gang up and form mobs that were very popular in urban areas (Woodwiss 8).

Crimes were left in the hands of able gangs. Consistent wars between the gangs in the streets were evident fighting to maintain control. The fights would focus on affirming control in the markets. It occurred that the new gangs would license people to sell illegal drugs and alcohol. A set tax would be paid by the seller to the gangs.

The control of urban centers and other key places of interest questioned the authority of the United States. There are states that were notoriously known for mobsters, for instance in Chicago whereby Al Capone used to manage a big gang that controlled alcohol markets. On the same vein, it should be noted that prohibition was inadequately managed, and it directly fostered the rise of organized crimes.

The rise of organized crimes occurred at a time when there were many temperament groups seeking to better the society. The movement had taken shape since 1800. Their founding goals were to reform several aspects of the society. The issue of alcohol being a source of social instability was part of the movement’s aim. Though its leadership was mainly religious, the Temperance society had a distinct mission from that of religious leaders.

The most notable aim was to support the society from the rate of insecurity and other crimes in that period. The prohibition period was largely ineffective since Americans continued to access the prohibited alcohol. Organized crimes took over legitimate saloons; hence stamping their authority in bigger areas than the neighborhoods they controlled.

The mobsters made policies of selling alcohol, which were directly against the prohibition promoted by the government. In other cities, some of the well known leaders enriched themselves during the time of prohibition by supplying liquor in areas with high demand. Smuggling of alcohol from other parts of the world was equally evident. The situation aggravated to a worse situation than it was before. Crimes unknown before such as smuggling were rampant (Woodwiss 8).

Prohibition prepared the ground for the significant increase in violent crimes. One of the famous violent crimes that was committed in the infamous incident of St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, whereby the quest for territory led to death of many individuals.

The Valentines Massacre was one among many crimes that took place in major cities in the United States. The increase of crimes in America hit a thirteen percent mark. This was contrary to what supporters of prohibition had expected. Though the prohibition efficacy was highly questioned, other crimes such as swearing and vagrancy were dealt with.

Prohibition was geared towards reducing the number of people serving in prisons; to the contrary, prisons ended up being congested. State prisons received enormous number of prisoners. The financial burden was heavily felt in all levels of government. More tax revenues were needed than before. The economic situation in 1920s was affected by the prohibition period.

The response to prohibition led to certain establishments that served alcohol illegally. Though the operation of the said establishments was illegal, it was clear that corruption in the police department aided these establishments. In some instances, the police department was used by gangs, whereby the police informed the gangs in advance during raids. Doctors’ prescription of whiskey as a medicine triggered a million gallons of liquor in a year.

The prohibition law stated that alcohol was permitted three miles off the coast, which was capitalized on by state-owned shipping agencies. The state-owned agencies served alcohol over water since the law did not prohibit such a practice. Brewing of alcohol was rampant in homes. The practice was largely illegal. Prohibition lacked a moral backing since many public officials disregarded prohibition (Lyman and Potter 16).

The prohibition campaign failed in its entirety since it created a worse state, instead of controlling alcohol consumption. Its attempt to stop consumption of alcohol was met by maximum resistance. Both national and federal governments were affected in a way that they did not anticipate.

The Volstead Act is said to have had a direct contribution towards crime prevalence in the United States. The organized crimes evidenced after the prohibition were placed in different categories. The most dominant of all was bootlegging. This involved the sale of black market alcohol.

It became a booming business that became remarkable with profits. The bootleggers hiked the price of alcohol to gain vast amounts of profits in a short duration. The bootleggers were extremely vigilant in making sure that they were not caught by authorities. The competition between the mobs was untamed, making it very unhealthy and dangerous. The wars over control of liquor markets were fought in the streets with sophisticated weapons (Cressey and Finckenauer 12).

The acts of the gangs in the 1920s fit in the confines of the definition of an organized crime. In its definition, organized crime entails a systematic illegal or unlawful activity by an individual or a group of individuals. The crime could be in a city, interstate, and in some instances at an international scale.

The aim of organized crime unlike other types of crimes is that it is for profit making. The profit making element introduces the modern day crimes on corporate criminal organization. In the criminal organization arena, the essence of keeping secrets in illegal operations is encouraged.

The gangs in organized crimes have to be systematically organized for them to be termed organized. The structuring of the groups for criminal intents is known as racketeering. Supporters of the prohibition had overlooked the fact that criminal organization has major support from the society. In the society that the organization exists, rooted support helps in keeping the group.

It has been established that the law did not make it a point to set strict offences for those who aided or abetted operations of gangs. It was a miscalculation of the law drafters, whereby they were not alive to the fact that mob groups were part of the society. With time, the groups were committing crimes under the watchful eyes of the police. The police were paid to look away, and in some instances they benefited directly from the illegal activities (Woodwiss 8).

Members of the judiciary and the legislature were compromised through blackmail or bribery, giving birth to a situation where the gangs were powerful and deeply rooted. There were mutual beneficial relationships through illegal businesses that were created by leaders of the gangs and public officials. It was extremely impossible to anticipate prosecuting corrupt official since law societies closely shielded them.

The gangs were integrated in the government, whereby revenue from narcotics and extortion was accepted in the revenue. In addition, organized crimes such as labor racketeering were inevitable. There was a rampant organized labor that introduced exploitation to the laborers. Lack of reasonable working conditions was very evident. Employers were subjected to bullying, whereby they were forced to pay employees who did not work.

Money was paid to the corrupt officials to guarantee labor peace. The mobsters were paid more retirement incomes than other employees. The organized crimes in the labor sector were widely used to exercise control. Crimes would recur, whereby labor officials who did not go as per the orders of the gang were killed. The period was marred with a lot of blood shed and unlawfulness (“Prohibition: As Bad Now As It Was During The 1920’S” 3).

There are other crimes related to immigration that emerged during the time of prohibition. Immigration groups that did not trust the police and other authorities formed powerful groups to further their mission. These groups mainly engaged in crimes such as drugs and corruption.

Several organizations in the United States were formed. Federal agents lacked the right mechanisms to use in fighting the growing number of crimes. The raiding of speakeasies was met with an equal measure of resistance since the crime syndicate had both national and international connections.

The formation of the 1930 Wickersham Commission inquiry was to investigate why the crime rate was going on. The inquiry showed that there was political corruption in the institutions. The environment created during the prohibition period was felt later. In 1933, the law prohibiting sale of alcohol was repealed, which made the gangs to choose other means to continue exercising control. Trafficking of narcotics became very pronounced in 1920s to supplement the repealing of the Prohibition Act.

Gangs still remained intact and major differences in suppressing them made it hard to do away with the crime rate. Major crime kingpins had sufficient political connections, which made it easy for them to draw demarcations based on the control of some cities. The move by the Congress to neutralize the crime rate had profound effects on the national economy. Various commissions were set up to investigate the prevailing situation of organized crimes.

In 1972, the Knapp Commission indicated that there was a very close link between the kingpins of organized crimes in New York and the department of police. There were severe economic effects witnessed as a result of the gangs’ operations in key cities in America. Another report conducted in 1988 showed that massive bribing was taking place in the public service sector. The interstate links to organized crimes played an increasing role in defining the modern forms of organized crimes (Casper 837).

The rebirth of a moment whereby organized crime could not be stopped has been explained through different ways. There are those who have averred that the Prohibition Act aided the eradication of public consumption of alcohol. Prohibition era was an intervention intended to deal with the problem of alcoholism in America.

Its repercussions were a direct contrary situation from the government. It was in that era that organized crimes unknown before started to surface. The critics of the Prohibition Act and the era have observed that the situation was created by the drafters of the Act.

Crimes such as setting forests on fire became common. The twists evidenced in the crime cycles today have greatly borrowed from the period after the Prohibition period. The seeds of organized crime sowed during the era have continued to blossom everyday in the world. The failed intentions of the Prohibition have formed a golden age of crime. New ways of evading tax and black mail were adopted. It should be noted that organized crimes are committed in various ways, but they are based on the same theory (Abadinsky 12).

The theory developed after the prohibition era clearly explained the reasons why crime rate increased after the prohibition was passed. The cause of organized crimes has been based on the basis of supply and demand. It has been observed that demand for illegal goods makes it impossible to rule out criminal syndicates.

The syndicates are geared towards maintaining a constant supply. In most cases, the market is confined to small powerful syndicates who protect it at all costs. The power in the criminal syndicates is based on the ability to suppress public morals, while at the same time neutralizing the law enforcement agencies.

The syndicates depend on using corrupt means that are intended to blackmail public officials. Infiltration of the legal economy is the most appropriate weapon developed after the prohibition period. The countermeasures taken to avert organized crime have often been met by enormous weaknesses, making it hard to deal with the criminal syndicates in the world today.

There are four components that are imperative in dealing with organized crimes. The four components can be effective in dealing with organized crimes if well managed. They include government, society, illegal markets, and availability of readily organized markets. The issue of organized crimes can be ably addressed with proper coordination of the government and the society.

The main stumbling block is the fact that criminal syndicates are well funded, and in many instances they get support from the societies that they are established in. With support of the society, it becomes clear that the government may not find it easy to deal with such a group. The fact that the criminal syndicates are well grounded makes them an organizational entity that uses many resources to maintain their status quo. The government should put in place strict measures to deal with the criminal syndicates.

Illegal markets that are widespread should be dealt with before the government can competently handle organized crimes. In advanced cases, patron client networks have been defined to help in organization of the crimes. The networks have remained in interconnected social and economic environments. Organized crimes largely depend on the existing systems. They employ effective communication to counter the enforcement agencies (“The Wine of Violence” 20).


The prohibition era was a period when laws were introduced to deal with alcoholism. The period was backed with the constitution amendment famously known as the Eighteenth Amendment. The amendment outlawed importation, production and distribution of alcohol.

The rationale of the laws was not realized, thus several consequences came up. The period was marked with organized crimes, with crime groups taking control of major cities in America. The groups operated in a time whereby law agencies were marred with rampant corruption. State agents were either bribed or black mailed.

Control of illegal markets was the main interest of every group. The authority and control used to be through street fights, whereby the group that won would control the market at that time. The dynamics of demand and supply used to play a critical role in keeping one group stronger than the other. The popularity of each group was essential in affirming authority. Undoubtedly, the prohibition era was a period when organized crimes took shape and many illegal transactions took place at the time.

Works Cited

“Prohibition: As Bad Now As It Was During The 1920’S.” Electronic Ardell Wellness Report (E-AWR) 351 (2006): 3-3. Print.

“The Wine Of Violence.” Saturday Evening Post 204.46 (1932): 20-20. Print.

Abadinsky, Howard. Organized Crime. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2009. Print.

Casper, Juliet M. “Organized Crime–United States.” Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology 85.3 (1995): 837-837. Print.

Cressey, Donald Ray, and Finckenauer James. Theft of the Nation: The Structure and Operations of Organized Crime in America. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2008. Print.

Lyman, Michael, and Potter Gary. Organized Crime. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2010. Print.

Woodwiss, Michael. “Capone to Kefauver: Organised Crime in America.” History Today 37.6 (1987): 8-8. Print.

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