Crime and Criminals.
Address to the Prisoners
in the Chicago Jail
This address is a stenographic report of a talk made to the prisoners
in the Chicago jail. Some of my good friends have insisted that
while my theories are true, I should not have given them to the
inmates of a jail.
Realizing the force of the suggestion that the truth should not
be spoken to all people, I have caused these remarks to be printed
on rather good paper and in a somewhat expensive form. In this way
the truth does not become cheap and vulgar, and is only placed before
those whose intelligence and affluence will prevent their being
influenced by it.
Crime and Criminals
If I looked at jails and crimes and prisoners in the way the ordinary
person does, I should not speak on this subject to you. The reason
I talk to you on the question of crime, its cause and cure, is because
I really do not, in the least, believe in crime. There is no such
thing as a crime as the word is generally understood. I do not believe
there is any sort of distinction between the real moral condition
of the people in and out of jail. One is just as good as the other.
The people here can no more help being here than the people outside
can avoid being outside. I do not believe that people are in jail
because they deserve to be. They are in jail simply because they
cannot avoid it on account of circumstances which are entirely beyond
their control and for which they are in no way responsible.
I suppose a great many people on the outside would say I was doing
you harm if they should hear what I say to you this afternoon, but
you cannot be hurt a great deal anyway, so it will not matter. Good
people outside would say that I was really teaching you things that
were calculated to injure society, but it’s worth while now and
then to hear something different from what you ordinarily get from
preachers and the like. These will tell you that you should be good
and then you will get rich and be happy. Of course we know that
people do not get rich by being good, and that is the reason why
so many of you people try to get rich some other way, only you do
not understand how to do it quite as well as the fellow outside.
There are people who think that everything in this world is an
accident. But really there is no such thing as an accident. A great
many folks admit that many of the people in jail ought not to be
there, and many who are outside ought to be in. I think none of
them ought to be here. There ought to be no jails, and if it were
not for the fact that the people on the outside are so grasping
and heartless in their dealings with the people on the inside, there
would be no such institution as jails.
I do not want you to believe that I think all you people here are
angels. I do not think that. You are people of all kinds, all of
you doing the best you can, and that is evidently not very well
– you are people of all kinds and conditions and under all circumstances.
In one sense everybody is equally good and equally bad. We all do
the best we can under the circumstances. But as to the exact things
for which you are sent here, some of you are guilty and did the
particular act because you needed the money. Some of you did it
because you are in the habit of doing it, and some of you because
you are born to it, and it comes to be as natural as it does, for
instance, for me to be good.
Most of you probably have nothing against me, and most of you would
treat me the same as any other person would; probably better than
some of the people on the outside would treat me, because you think
I believe in you and they know I do not believe in them. While you
would not have the least thing against me in the world you might
pick my pockets. I do not think all of you would, but I think some
of you would. You would not have anything against me, but that’s
your profession, a few of you. Some of the rest of you, if my doors
were unlocked, might come in if you saw anything you wanted – not
out of malice to me, but because that is your trade. There is no
doubt there are quite a number of people in this jail who would
pick my pockets. And still I know this, that when I get outside
pretty nearly everybody picks my pocket. There may be some of you
who would hold up a man on the street, if you did not happen to
have something else to do, and needed the money; but when I want
to light my house or my office the gas company holds me up. They
charge me one dollar for something that is worth twenty–five cents,
and still all these people are good people; they are pillars of
society and support the churches, and they are respectable.
When I ride on the street cars, I am held up – I pay five cents
for a ride that is worth two and a half cents, simply because a
body of men have bribed the city council and the legislature, so
that all the rest of us have to pay tribute to them.
If I do not wish to fall into the clutches of the gas trust and
choose to burn oil instead of gas, then good Mr. Rockefeller holds
me up, and he uses a certain portion of his money to build universities
and support churches which are engaged in telling us how to be good.
Some of you are here for obtaining property under false pretenses
– yet I pick up a great Sunday paper and read the advertisements
of a merchant prince – “Shirt waists for 39 cents, marked down
When I read the advertisements in the paper I see they are all
lies. When I want to get out and find a place to stand anywhere
on the face of the earth, I find that it has all been taken up long
ago before I came here, and before you came here, and somebody says,
“Get off, swim into the lake, fly into the air; go anywhere,
but get off.” That is because these people have the police
and they have the jails and judges and the lawyers and the soldiers
and all the rest of them to take care of the earth and drive everybody
off that comes in their way.
A great many people will tell you that all this is true, but that
it does not excuse you. These facts do not excuse some fellow who
reaches into my pocket and takes out a five dollar bill; the fact
that the gas company bribes the members of the legislature from
year to year, and fixes the law, so that all you people are compelled
to be “fleeced” whenever you deal with them; the fact
that the street car companies and the gas companies have control
of the streets and the fact that the landlords own all the earth,
they say, has nothing to do with you.
Let us see whether there is any connection between the crimes of
the respectable classes and your presence in the jail. Many of you
people are in jail because you have really committed burglary. Many
of you, because you have stolen something; in the meaning of the
law, you have taken some other person’s property. Some of you have
entered a store and carried off a pair of shoes because you did
not have the price. Possibly some of you have committed murder.
I cannot tell what all of you did. There are a great many people
here who have done some of these things who really do not know themselves
why they did them. I think I know why you did them – every one of
you; you did these things because you were bound to do them. It
looked to you at the time as if you had a chance to do them or not,
as you saw fit, but still after all you had no choice. There may
be people here who had some money in their pockets and who still
went out and got some more money in a way society forbids. Now you
may not yourselves see exactly why it was you did this thing, but
if you look at the question deeply enough and carefully enough you
would see that there were circumstances that drove you to do exactly
the thing which you did. You could not help it any more than we
outside can help taking the positions that we take. The reformers
who tell you to be good and you will be happy, and the people on
the outside who have property to protect – they think that the only
way to do it is by building jails and locking you up in cells on
week days and praying for you Sundays.
I think that all of this has nothing whatever to do with right
conduct. I think it is very easily seen what has to do with right
conduct. Some so–called criminals – and I will use this word because
it is handy, it means nothing to me – I speak of the criminals who
get caught as distinguished from the criminals who catch them –
some of these so–called criminals are in jail for the first offenses,
but nine–tenths of you are in jail because you did not have a good
lawyer and of course you did not have a good lawyer because you
did not have enough money to pay a good lawyer. There is no very
great danger of a rich man going to jail.
Some of you may be here for the first time. If we would open the
doors and let you out, and leave the laws as they are today, some
of you would be back tomorrow. This is about as good a place as
you can get anyway. There are many people here who are so in the
habit of coming that they would not know where else to go. There
are people who are born with the tendency to break into jail every
chance they get, and they cannot avoid it. You cannot figure out
your life and see why it was, but still there is a reason for it,
and if we were all wise and knew all the facts we could figure it
In the first place, there are a good many more people who go to
jail in the winter time than in summer. Why is this? Is it because
people are more wicked in winter? No, it is because the coal trust
begins to get in its grip in the winter. A few gentlemen take possession
of the coal, and unless the people will pay $7 or $8 a ton for something
that is worth $3, they will have to freeze. Then there is nothing
to do but break into jail, and so there are many more in jail in
the winter than in summer. It costs more for gas in the winter because
the nights are longer, and people go to jail to save gas bills.
The jails are electric lighted. You may not know it, but these economic
laws are working all the time, whether we know it or do not know
There are more people go to jail in hard times than in good times
– few people comparatively go to jail except when they are hard
up. They go to jail because they have no other place to go. They
may not know why, but it is true all the same. People are not more
wicked in hard times. That is not the reason. The fact is true all
over the world that in hard times more people go to jail than in
good times, and in winter more people go to jail than in summer.
Of course it is pretty hard times for people who go to jail at any
time. The people who go to jail are almost always poor people –
people who have no other place to live first and last. When times
are hard then you find large numbers of people who go to jail who
would not otherwise be in jail.
Long ago Mr. Buckle, who was a great philosopher and historian,
collected facts and he showed that the number of people who are
arrested increased just as the price of food increased. When they
put up the price of gas ten cents a thousand I do not know who will
go to jail, but I do know that a certain number of people will go.
When the meat combine raises the price of beef I do not know who
is going to jail, but I know that a large number of people are bound
to go. Whenever the Standard Oil Company raises the price of oil,
I know that a certain number of girls who are seamstresses, and
who work after night long hours for somebody else, will be compelled
to go out on the streets and ply another trade, and I know that
Mr. Rockefeller and his associates are responsible and not the poor
girls in the jails.
First and last, people are sent to jail because they are poor.
Sometimes, as I say, you may not need money at the particular time,
but you wish to have thrifty forehanded habits, and do not always
wait until you are in absolute want. Some of you people are perhaps
plying the trade, the profession, which is called burglary. No man
in his right senses will go into a strange house in the dead of
night and prowl around with a dark lantern through unfamiliar rooms
and take chances of his life if he has plenty of the good things
of the world in his own home. You would not take any such chances
as that. If a man had clothes in his clothes–press and beefsteak
in his pantry, and money in the bank, he would not navigate around
nights in houses where he knows nothing about the premises whatever.
It always requires experience and education for this profession,
and people who fit themselves for it are no more to blame than I
am for being a lawyer. A man would not hold up another man on the
street if he had plenty of money in his own pocket. He might do
it if he had one dollar or two dollars, but he wouldn’t if he had
as much money as Mr. Rockefeller has. Mr. Rockefeller has a great
deal better hold–up game than that.
The more that is taken from the poor by the rich, who have the
chance to take it, the more poor people there are who are compelled
to resort to these means for a livelihood. They may not understand
it, they may not think so at once, but after all they are driven
into that line of employment.
There is a bill before the legislature of this State to punish
kidnapping of children with death. We have wise members of the legislature.
They know the gas trust when they see it and they always see it
– they can furnish light enough to be seen, and this legislature
thinks it is going to stop kidnapping of children by making a law
punishing kidnapers of children with death. I don’t believe in kidnapping
children, but the legislature is all wrong. Kidnapping children
is not a crime, it is a profession. It has been developed with the
times. It has been developed with our modern industrial conditions.
There are many ways of making money – many new ways that our ancestors
knew nothing about. Our ancestors knew nothing about a billion dollar
trust; and here comes some poor fellow who has no other trade and
he discovers the profession of kidnapping children.
This crime is born, not because people are bad; people don’t kidnap
other people’s children because they want the children or because
they are devilish, but because they see a chance to get some money
out of it. You cannot cure this crime by passing a law punishing
by death kidnapers of children. There is one way to cure it. There
is one way to cure all these offenses, and that is to give the people
a chance to live. There is no other way, and there never was any
other way since the world began, and the world is so blind and stupid
that it will not see. If every man and woman and child in the world
had a chance to make a decent, fair, honest living, there would
be no jails, and no lawyers and no courts. There might be some persons
here or there with some peculiar formation of their brain, like
Rockefeller, who would do these things simply to be doing them;
but they would be very, very few, and those should be sent to a
hospital and treated, and not sent to jail, and they would entirely
disappear in the second generation, or at least in the third generation.
I am not talking pure theory. I will just give you two or three
The English people once punished criminals by sending them away.
They would load them on a ship and export them to Australia. England
was owned by lords and nobles and rich people. They owned the whole
earth over there, and the other people had to stay in the streets.
They could not get a decent living. They used to take their criminals
and send them to Australia – I mean the class of criminals who got
caught. When these criminals got over there, and nobody else had
come, they had the whole continent to run over, and so they could
raise sheep and furnish their own meat, which is easier than stealing
it; these criminals then became decent, respectable people because
they had a chance to live. They did not commit any crimes. They
were just like the English people who sent them there, only better.
And in the second generation the descendants of those criminals
were as good and respectable a class of people as there were on
the face of the earth, and then they began building churches and
A portion of this country was settled in the same way, landing
prisoners down on the southern coast; but when they got here and
had a whole continent to run over and plenty of chances to make
a living, they became respectable citizens, making their own living
just like any other citizen in the world; but finally these descendants
of the English aristocracy, who sent the people over to Australia,
found out they were getting rich, and so they went over to get possession
of the earth as they always do, and they organized land syndicates
and got control of the land and ores, and then they had just as
many criminals in Australia as they did in England. It was not because
the world had grown bad; it was because the earth had been taken
away from the people.
Some of you people have lived in the country. It’s prettier than
it is here. And if you have ever lived on a farm you understand
that if you put a lot of cattle in a field, when the pasture is
short they will jump over the fence; but put them in a good field
where there is plenty of pasture, and they will be law–abiding cattle
to the end of time. The human animal is just like the rest of the
animals, only a little more so. The same thing that governs in the
one governs in the other.
Everybody makes his living along the lines of least resistance.
A wise man who comes into a country early sees a great undeveloped
land. For instance, our rich men twenty–five years ago saw that
Chicago was small and knew a lot of people would come here and settle,
and they readily saw that if they had all the land around here it
would be worth a good deal, so they grabbed the land. You cannot
be a landlord because somebody has got it all. You must find some
other calling. In England and Ireland and Scotland less than five
percent own all the land there is, and the people are bound to stay
there on any kind of terms the landlords give. They must live the
best they can, so they develop all these various professions – burglary,
picking pockets and the like.
Again, people find all sorts of ways of getting rich. These are
diseases like everything else. You look at people getting rich,
organizing trusts, and making a million dollars, and somebody gets
the disease and he starts out. He catches it just as a man catches
the mumps or the measles; he is not to blame, it is in the air.
You will find men speculating beyond their means, because the mania
of money–getting is taking possession of them. It is simply a disease;
nothing more, nothing less. You cannot avoid catching it; but the
fellows who have control of the earth have the advantage of you.
See what the law is; when these men get control of things, they
make the laws. They do not make the laws to protect anybody; courts
are not instruments of justice; when your case gets into court it
will make little difference whether you are guilty or innocent;
but it’s better if you have a smart lawyer. And you cannot have
a smart lawyer unless you have money. First and last it’s a question
of money. Those men who own the earth make the laws to protect what
they have. They fix up a sort of fence or pen around what they have,
and they fix the law so the fellow on the outside cannot get in.
The laws are really organized for the protection of the men who
rule the world. They were never organized or enforced to do justice.
We have no system for doing justice, not the slightest in the world.
Let me illustrate: Take the poorest person in this room. If the
community had provided a system of doing justice the poorest person
in this room would have as good a lawyer as the richest, would he
not? When you went into court you would have just as long a trial,
and just as fair a trial as the richest person in Chicago. Your
case would not be tried in fifteen or twenty minutes, whereas it
would take fifteen days to get through with a rich man’s case.
Then if you were rich and were beaten your case would be taken
to the Appellate Court. A poor man cannot take his case to the Appellate
Court; he has not the price; and then to the Supreme Court, and
if he were beaten there he might perhaps go to the United States
Supreme Court. And he might die of old age before he got into jail.
If you are poor, it’s a quick job. You are almost known to be guilty,
else you would not be there. Why should anyone be in the criminal
court if he were not guilty? He would not be there if he could be
anywhere else. The officials have no time to look after these cases.
The people who are on the outside, who are running banks and building
churches and making jails, they have no time to examine 600 or 700
prisoners each year to see whether they are guilty or innocent.
If the courts were organized to promote justice the people would
elect somebody to defend all these criminals, somebody as smart
as the prosecutor – and give him as many detectives and as many
assistants to help, and pay as much money to defend you as to prosecute
you. We have a very able man for State’s Attorney, and he has many
assistants, detectives and policemen without end, and judges to
hear the cases – everything handy.
Most of our criminal code consists in offenses against property.
People are sent to jail because they have committed a crime against
property. It is of very little consequence whether one hundred people
more or less go to jail who ought not to go – you must protect property,
because in this world property is of more importance than anything
How is it done? These people who have property fix it so they can
protect what they have. When somebody commits a crime it does not
follow that he has done something that is morally wrong. The man
on the outside who has committed no crime may have done something.
For instance: to take all the coal in the United States and raise
the price two dollars or three dollars when there is no need of
it, and thus kills thousands of babies and send thousands of people
to the poorhouse and tens of thousands to jail, as is done every
year in the United States – this is a greater crime than all the
people in our jails ever committed, but the law does not punish
it. Why? Because the fellows who control the earth make the laws.
If you and I had the making of the laws, the first thing we would
do would be to punish the fellow who gets control of the earth.
Nature put this coal in the ground for me as well as for them and
nature made the prairies up here to raise wheat for me as well as
for them, and then the great railroad companies came along and fenced
Most all of the crimes for which we are punished are property crimes.
There are a few personal crimes, like murder – but they are very
few. The crimes committed are mostly against property. If this punishment
is right the criminals must have a lot of property. How much money
is there in this crowd? And yet you are all here for crimes against
property. The people up and down the Lake Shore have not committed
crime, still they have so much property they don’t know what to
do with it. It is perfectly plain why these people have not committed
crimes against property; they make the laws and therefore do not
need to break them. And in order for you to get some property you
are obliged to break the rules of the game. I don’t know but what
some of you may have had a very nice chance to get rich by carrying
the hod for one dollar a day, twelve hours. Instead of taking that
nice, easy profession, you are a burglar. If you had been given
a chance to be a banker you would rather follow that. Some of you
may have had a chance to work as a switchman on a railroad where
you know, according to statistics, that you cannot live and keep
all your limbs more than seven years, and you get fifty dollars
a month for taking your lives in your hands, and instead of taking
that lucrative position you choose to be a sneak thief, or something
like that. Some of you made that sort of chance. I don’t know which
I would take if I was reduced to this choice. I have an easier choice.
I will guarantee to take from this jail, or any jail in the world,
five hundred men who have been the worst criminals and law breakers
who ever got into jail, and I will go down to our lowest streets
and take five hundred of the most hardened prostitutes, and go out
somewhere where there is plenty of land, and will give them a chance
to make a living, and they will be as good people as the average
in the community.
There is a remedy for the sort of condition we see here. The world
never finds it out, or when it does find it out it does not enforce
it. You may pass a law punishing every person with death for burglary,
and it will make no difference. Men will commit it just the same.
In England there was a time when one hundred different offenses
were punishable with death, and it made no difference. The English
people strangely found out that so fast as they repealed the severe
penalties and so fast as they did away with punishing men by death,
crime decreased instead of increased; that the smaller the penalty
the fewer the crimes.
Hanging men in our county jails does not prevent murder. It makes
And this has been the history of the world. It’s easy to see how
to do away with what we call crime. It is not so easy to do it.
I will tell you how to do it. It can be done by giving the people
a chance to live – by destroying special privileges. So long as
big criminals can get the coal fields, so long as the big criminals
have control of the city council and get the public streets for
street cars and gas rights, this is bound to send thousands of poor
people to jail. So long as men are allowed to monopolize all the
earth, and compel others to live on such terms as these men see
fit to make, then you are bound to get into jail.
The only way in the world to abolish crime and criminals is to
abolish the big ones and the little ones together. Make fair conditions
of life. Give men a chance to live. Abolish the right of private
ownership of land, abolish monopoly, make the world partners in
production, partners in the good things of life. Nobody would steal
if he could get something of his own some easier way. Nobody will
commit burglary when he has a house full. No girl will go out on
the streets when she has a comfortable place at home. The man who
owns a sweatshop or a department store may not be to blame himself
for the condition of his girls, but when he pays them five dollars,
three dollars, and two dollars a week, I wonder where he thinks
they will get the rest of their money to live. The only way to cure
these conditions is by equality. There should be no jails. They
do not accomplish what they pretend to accomplish. If you would
wipe them out, there would be no more criminals than now. They terrorize
nobody. They are a blot upon civilization, and a jail is an evidence
of the lack of charity of the people on the outside who make the
jails and fill them with the victims of their greed.
Clarence Darrow 1902
Clarence Darrow (1857–1938) is bestl known for his role in the
Scopes and Leopold–Loeb trials, but he also defended Eugene Debs,
Big Bill Haywood and other labour, antiwar and civil rights cases.
More extensive discussion of his views on crime and punishment can
be found in his books Resist Not Evil (1903) and Crime:
Its Cause and Treatment (1922).
No copyright. This text is now in the public domain and may be