The Chicago Vice Commission
Frederick H. Whitin
Chairman Committee of Fourteen, New York
The commission's report shows a full and complete investigation and study of existing conditions in a most difficult field, crowded with opportunities for exaggeration and sensation. Its recommendations are idealistic; they aim to secure a condition which cannot be obtained in this generation or the next. It is no wonder the report of the commission was unanimous! It should have similar support from all decent citizens.
But what of the means proposed for attainment? Having made the diagnosis, the commission recommends the establishment of an institution to accomplish the remedy proposed. Possibly this was all this particular body could do, for it made no study of law enforcement. It could not study law enforcement in Chicago for there was none. It is to be regretted that the commission could not delay its final report until it could have tested for itself the effect of a maximum enforcement of the existing laws. If a study of enforcement was made in the other cities referred to (page 20) no mention is made of it.
The commission condemns as "degenerating and ineffective" the continental system of license and legalization. It finds the existing system in Chicago most unsatisfactory, even under so good an administration as that of Superintendent of Police Steward. It recommends constant and persistent repression by a morals commission, a morals court, and a morals police.
Has the commission made a study of how its recommendations might be expected to work in practice? If so, the chapter has been omitted. What is the commission's answer to the following:
(1) The members of the morals commission are to be appointed by the mayor, who is subject to political pressure against law enforcement. Carter Harrison, the recently re-elected mayor of Chicago, has already declared himself in favor of "sequestration." Can he be expected to appoint members likely to enforce the recommendations ?
(2) The organization and composition of the proposed morals court is not stated. The first most important business of such a court will be to determine upon the character of evidence which will be required for convictions. A commission which has not studied enforcement knows nothing of the problems of evidence required. Must the police be participants in sin and crime that they may secure the necessary evidence? Dr. Morrow has for years denounced this requirement of evidence demanded in New York, and Chief O'Meara of Boston believes the disorderly houses are a lesser evil. Another illustration of difficulties : How are a morals commission, court, and police "immediately to suppress assignation hotels"? (a) Because it is an assignation hotel rather than a disorderly one, it is not a neighborhood nuisance (upon which condition the existing law and decisions lay emphasis ; (b) being a hotel, the proprietor must accept as guests persons who comply with certain not difficult requirements, or he is liable under the innkeepers act; (c) drastic action can only follow a criminal conviction which necessitates proof of knowledge, a danger which astute proprietors have been taught to avoid. The vice commission has estimated the strength of the opposition to its recommendation by those directly profiting from vice. What of the indirect forces? (a) The man in the street opposes them for he is yet to be taught effectively that sexual desire does not require satisfaction for the maintenance of physical health; (b) is a closed and clean town attractive to the "stranger within the gates" of whom the commission speaks? It is not; hence general business interests will oppose.
(3) What does repression first accomplish? A scattering of plague spots into new locations, generally residential districts. Even Superintendent Steward's order forbidding the sale of liquor in disorderly houses had that effect according to the commission's own report. It also states (page 293) "that experience in despotic and theocratic governments has shown that suppression of prostitution has often driven it into the mass of the community, making it take the peculiarly dangerous clandestine type." Is the community sufficiently aroused to be prepared to carry the fight through to annihilation? Bitter experience teaches one to say "no." Must we then temporize with the evil? This is the problem the commission faced. "On to Richmond !" was the cry of the North fifty years ago. The attempt cost both sides tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of millions of dollars. When Richmond did fall it was the result of steady pressure upon the front and the annihilation of the sources of support and supply from the rear. Is it possible that the vice commission's broad program was adopted to secure this combination of direct and indirect attack without expectation of accomplishing one before the other ? Its experienced members must have appreciated that no large city of the present day, with a popular form of government, would continuously sustain an effort to suppress prostitution by direct attack. Public sentiment will, however, sustain limited repressive measures. While these are restraining the evil, the adoption of the other recommendation would, by cutting off the so-called sources of supply, enable the eventual accomplishment of the ultimate aim, "complete annihilation.".