In a feature article online at the New York World, Maura O'Connor describes how NYC's pretrial release program, administered by the Criminal Justice Agency, works and traces its history back to the founding of the Vera Institute of Justice.
While courts in other states and cities now have their own variations on pretrial release, New York City pioneered the idea that defendants could be released without bail. Russian-born industrialist Louis Schweitzer visited a Manhattan prison in 1960 and saw that hundreds of people were stuck behind bars in the city, not because they had been determined to be guilty of crimes but because they didn’t have money to pay their way out.
Working with Herbert Sturz, a young journalist, Schweitzer came up with a radical idea: Why not just let more people out of jail without requiring bail at all? With Schweitzer’s money, the two launched the Vera Institute of Justice and the Manhattan Bail Project. Over the course of three years, the project found that by interviewing defendants about their employment history and family ties, they could give a judge a reasonable estimation of that person’s likelihood to reappear in court. Of the 3,505 people initially recommended by the Manhattan Bail Project to be released without bail, only 1.6 percent failed to appear at their trial.