What 60 Years of Fighting for Justice Looks Like

Nicholas Turner President & Director
Dec 13, 2021

Herb Sturz, co-founder of Vera Institute of Justice, was fighting to close Rikers Island until the very end of his life. I visited with him in May, four weeks before he died. Prone and in pain, Herb still wanted to discuss strategy to shutter this horrific jail complex. As was always his way, in a last gentle piece of advice, he recommended two people I should call to advance that goal.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Vera’s founding. As we mourn Herb and his successor Michael E. Smith, who passed away in May, we strive to build on their legacies by forging criminal legal and immigration systems that safeguard the humanity of all they touch.

We work for true justice in a country whose racist roots remain clearly active. Before the historic inauguration in January of the United States’ first woman, Black, and Asian vice president, a right-wing mob stormed the Capitol, displaying the Confederate flag and attempting to overturn a fair election. The restrained law enforcement response to this largely white group added to evidence that the United States still does not treat all people equally under the law. Overcriminalization and mass incarceration have replaced Jim Crow and continue to destroy lives, separate families, and squander resources in ways that cause outsize harm to Black people and other people of color.

Vera began as an organization dedicated to reforming bail in Manhattan. Today, we are committed to transforming justice systems on a national scale: helping to ensure prosecutors pursue justice, not jails; every single immigrant facing deportation who needs a government-funded lawyer has one; and all incarcerated students can receive a high-quality college education.

And for nearly two years, this work has been done against the backdrop of a pandemic that continues to cause suffering. I am thankful for our supporters and friends, who make our work possible. I am grateful to our staff and partners, who are weathering this difficult time with an unwavering commitment to transforming our justice systems. Last month, we returned to our offices after 20 months of separation. Though uncertainty continues, returning to community fortifies us.

As we celebrate 60 years of fighting for justice, we are still Herb’s Vera: empirical, independent, fierce, insistent, and endowed with entrepreneurial spirit. In our last conversation, Herb spoke of his love for Vera, his confidence in our course. In his memory, and in honor of the many who suffer under the oppressive systems he sought to change, we press on.