Photo by Jeanette Spicer.

60 Years of Fighting for Justice

Annual Report 2021

60 Years of Fighting for Justice

Annual Report 2021

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What 60 Years of Fighting for Justice Looks Like

Sixty years ago, the Men’s House of Detention in Lower Manhattan was packed with people who had been accused, but not convicted, of crimes. The jail was called “the Tombs,” and its filth, stench, and overcrowding made it unfit for the living. Most of the people behind bars there were not convicted of a crime; they simply could not afford to pay bail.

In 1961, Herb Sturz and Louis Schweitzer founded the Vera Foundation—now the Vera Institute of Justice. They believed that research, evidence, and advocacy could help end the injustice of money bail. Bail bondsmen, who profited from pretrial jailing, doubted that the fledgling organization would be successful.

“If they had taken us on in our infancy, they could have knocked us off,” Sturz later said. “But they had seen various academic studies come and go since the 12th century. They were sure we would be gone soon.” They were wrong.

This year, the organization that Herb Sturz and Louis Schweitzer started celebrates its 60th anniversary.

Herb Sturz, our founder, died on June 10. As news of his passing spread, Verans around the country were fighting to end money bail, providing legal representation to people in immigration detention, establishing humane conditions in prisons, ending the incarceration of girls and gender expansive youth, stopping the growth of rural jails, equipping prosecutors with tools to end racial disparities in charging and sentencing, stopping racially biased policing, and providing incarcerated people with opportunities for college education.

Vera started in 1961 with Herb Sturz sitting alone in the alcove adjoining Louis Schweitzer’s secretary’s office. Today it has grown to 290 employees with offices in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Washington, DC.

As we mourn our founder, and his successor Michael E. Smith (who died in May), we lean on the lessons they left us and work to build on their legacies.

Herb’s formula—using compelling data and tireless advocacy to transform unjust systems—continues to succeed. In our 60th year, we are applying that formula at the highest levels of power, as we focus intentionally on eradicating racial injustice. The criminal legal and immigration systems are fundamentally brutal, especially to people of color. Vera exists to transform these systems so that communities can thrive.

On the pages that follow, read how Vera seeks to transform the role of the prosecutor to one that pursues justice, not jails; to make sure that every immigrant facing deportation has a government-funded lawyer and a fighting chance to stay with their family and in our communities; and ensure that every incarcerated student has the chance to receive a quality college education. Vera once incubated social justice organizations across New York City. Now we strive for national policy change across state capitals and in Washington, DC, alongside community partners and government leaders.

Our founding charter stated that we exist “to seek and further the equal protection of the laws.” We are now carrying this mission—and the legacy of our founders—forward at a larger scale, with 60 years of experience and our unwavering commitment to justice for all.

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