SFWeekly.com, Barred From Freedom: The Manhattan Bail Project and the History of Pretrial Risk Assessment

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Nov 26 2012

In a follow up to his feature article in SF Weekly, "Barred from Freedom: How Pretrial Detention Ruins Lives," Albert Samaha blogs about the history of pretrial assessment in the United States with a focus on Vera's groundbreaking Manhattan Bail Project.

[Excerpt]

In 1961, a retired businessman and chemical engineer named Louis Schweitzer, New York City Mayor Robert Wagoner, and a journalist named Herbert Sturz established the Manhattan Bail Project, which sought to increase the rate of releases on own recognizance. Sturz came up with the idea, Schweitzer funded it, and Wagoner helped it get political backing.

The endeavor came amid America's first serious bail-reform movement. For three-plus decades academics had been publishing studies asserting that pretrial freedom was primarily based on a person's wealth. Advocates and officials, like Schweitzer and Wagoner, eventually jumped on board.

The project, the debut initiative for the Vera Institute of Justice, was pitched as a one-year study of the bail system, an experiment in public policy. It established a point system -- which considered factors like a defendant's previous convictions, community ties, and employment history -- in an effort to quantitatively measure a defendant's flight risk, and determine whether or not to recommend OR to the judge.