Putting Bail on a Scientific Footing

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1960

When Louis Schweitzer heard that a thousand boys had languished in a Brooklyn prison for at least ten months without trial, he was astonished and disappointed. Schweitzer, an immigrant from Ukraine who had thrived in the United States, thought of the Eighth Amendment in the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights with its prohibition on “excessive bail.” The boys were not necessarily guilty, but they were too poor to pay an appearance bond.

Schweitzer engaged the services of Herb Sturz, a young journalist who had written on the Bill of Rights, to examine the problem. This was the birth of the Vera Foundation. Its first effort was called the Manhattan Bail Project.

With a seed grant of $95,000 from Schweitzer, then $25,000 in each of the next two years, Sturz examined the backgrounds of thousands of defendants, trying to determine which ones posed flight risks (and therefore required incarceration) and which ones could be released with reasonable confidence that they would show up for trial. Factors like work history, family structure, previous criminal history, military service, and so forth were tested in various weightings. With the cooperation of New York City mayor Robert Wagner, which Schweitzer procured, a three-year experiment was run where more than 3,500 accused people were released without bail, based on the recommendations of Vera. Only about 60 of them failed to appear at trial for reasons within their control.

Based on these results, New York courts overhauled their bail procedures, informed by the Bail Project algorithms. In 1966, crediting the influence of the Vera Foundation’s work, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Bail Reform Act. Vera eventually turned its attention to other areas, spinning off a series of nonprofit groups involved with employment, drug addiction, immigration, and victim services. Now known as the Vera Institute for Justice, the group is a $31 million-per-year organization that studies criminal-justice policy and supports demonstration projects. At this point only one third of the Institute’s funding comes from private donations, the rest is now provided by federal or state governments.

  • Sam Roberts, A Kind of Genius: Herb Sturz and Society’s Toughest Problems (PublicAffairs, 2009)