Early on, criminal matters in the Department of Justice were assigned to different Assistant Attorneys General. The nucleus of what would become the Criminal Division began to form around 1915. The Department Register that year listed under the Office of the Assistant Attorney General William Wallace, Jr., the names of attorneys who were later closely associated with the Criminal Division.
The Criminal Division was formally organized by the Attorney General in 1919. That year, the Division is first mentioned in the Report of the Attorney General, which reads:
[Report of the Attorney General - 1919]
A more detailed mission statement for the Criminal Division appeared in a message from President Calvin Coolidge to the House of Representatives in 1929 entitled, “Origin and Development of the Office of the Attorney General.” There, President Calvin Coolidge wrote:
“An Assistant Attorney General has charge of a division which operates in connection with the enforcement of the criminal laws of the country by giving direction, where necessary, to the prosecution of cases involving crimes against the United States... and to all other matters involving criminal practice and procedure. Under this division also come questions arising in connection with crimes committed on the high seas, crimes arising under the national banking law and under the naturalization laws, and from which is given, when necessary, advice and instruction to United States attorneys in various districts respecting the conduct of criminal cases.”
In 1925, the Division consisted of an Assistant Attorney General, six lawyers, a secretary, and seven stenographers. There was considerable expansion of Division responsibilities in the 1930s. In 1933, the Tax Prohibition Division was abolished and the work of that office, including legal custody matters related to prisoners, probation, and parole, was transferred to the Criminal Division. The tax work remained in the Criminal Division for a very brief interval, as it became apparent in six months that a separate legal division was needed for that work. In 1933, the Criminal Division transferred its tax work to the newly created Tax Division. Also in 1933, the Attorney General abolished the Admiralty-Civil Division and transferred to the Criminal Division all customs matters in the Federal Courts, criminal cases involving customs’ violations, civil forfeiture cases, the Food and Drug Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Filled Milk Act, and the Animal and Meat Inspection Act. In 1934, the so called “Crime Bills” were drafted by the Criminal Division, resulting in thirteen statutes of major importance to criminal law and procedure being enacted by the Seventy-Third Congress. These subsequent statutes and responsibilities significantly increased the work of the Criminal Division.
Through the mid-30s, the Division operated along simple lines, with attorneys and stenographers working under the immediate supervision of the Assistant Attorney General in charge. With the continued enlargement of duties and the increase in both volume of work and personnel caused by the enactment of new criminal statutes, a distribution of responsibility became necessary. On April 30, 1936, Assistant Attorney General Brien McMahon reorganized the Criminal Division into three sections: Administrative, Appellate, and Trial.
The Division grew steadily over the years, creating sections and offices to address emerging criminal trends, including the increasingly nationwide and then international scope of criminal activity. Division members also helped to establish two other important Divisions in the Department of Justice. In 1957, the functions of the Civil Rights Section were transferred out of the Division, forming the basis of the Civil Rights Division. And in 2006, the Counterterrorism and Counterespionage Sections were transferred into the newly created National Security Division.
Throughout its history, the Criminal Division has been one of the nation's premier legal institutions, spearheading innovative federal litigation and law enforcement efforts. Division alumni have gone on to further serve the public in numerous capacities: on the U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. Courts of Appeal, U.S. District Courts, and state courts; in the U.S. Congress and state legislatures; and as U.S. and state Attorneys General. Division alumni have also gone on to become leaders in the private bar and academia. Today, approximately 900 career employees continue the Division's long tradition of pursuing justice on behalf of the American people.