History of Bail and Pretrial Release
Also read related PJI Report:
September 23, 2010 (Timothy R. Schnacke, Michael R. Jones, Claire M. B. Brooker)
The establishment of the Vera Institute of Justice in 1961 marks the beginning of pretrial services programs. Philanthropist Louis Schweitzer and magazine editor Herb Sturz recognized the injustice of a bail system in New York City that granted liberty based on income. Working with criminal justice leaders, they explored the problem, developed a solution and rigorously tested it.
The Vera Institute created the first pretrial screening program in the country – the Manhattan Bail Project. The Manhattan Bail Project sought to assist judges in making consistent, informed release decisions which relied less on release through financial means. The factors considered in the release recommendation included: the defendant's ties to the area, employment status, education and prior criminal record. Information was gathered through interviews with defendants and that information was then verified by calling references provided by the defendant.
The Vera Institute's research produced two findings. First, many people accused of committing crimes remained in pretrial custody only because they could not afford a nominal bail. Second, people with strong ties to the community who were released on their own recognizance (without any money bail) were very likely to appear for court proceedings.
At his first press conference as Attorney General, Robert Kennedy announced he was forming a committee to explore the treatment of the poor in federal courts. In 1963, the committee issued a report highlighting that only those with sufficient financial means achieved justice at any stage of the system. In particular, the report focused on the problem of bail and the detainment of the potentially innocent prior to trial. The following year, Attorney General Kennedy convened the first National Conference on Bail and Criminal Justice.
By 1965, 56 jurisdictions reported operational bail projects. Two statewide projects in Connecticut and New Jersey were also underway.
In 1968, the Washington, D.C., Bail Agency developed the first Pretrial Services programs. The D.C. Bail Agency assumed much greater responsibility in seeing that bail practices were carried out as mandated. In addition to interviewing, collecting background information, verifying information, producing reports and making recommendations to the court, the Pretrial Services programs began supervising defendants on various release conditions.
With D.C. pioneering the way, pretrial release programs have assumed a larger role in jurisdictions, evolving into comprehensive programs charged with monitoring the entire system of release. Pretrial services programs are the first criminal justice system players to assess and identify the needs of a defendant. They are also the gatekeepers for alternative placements. Pretrial programs gather and verify information about the accused (criminal history, status in criminal justice system, address, employment and drug or alcohol use), Pretrial programs also assess defendants' likelihood for failure to appear at court proceedings or re-arrest while on release. Pretrial services programs present the judge with this information, allowing him or her to use it in determining appropriate pretrial release/detention and conditions. Once the judge reaches his decision, the pretrial programs then function as the supervisors of the defendants on release and notify the courts upon any violation of release conditions.
In 1968, the American Bar Association (ABA) published the first set of standards regarding pretrial release decisions. In 1973, the National Association of Pretrial Services Agencies (NAPSA) was incorporated. In 1977, the Pretrial Services Resource Center (PSRC) – now the Pretrial Justice Institute – was established as a clearinghouse for pretrial services information. In 1978, with grants from the Department of Justice, NAPSA developed national professional standards for the pretrial programs – "Performance Standards and Goals for Pretrial Release" – and PSRC conducted an evaluation of the status of the pretrial field.