The Vera Foundation in NYC began in 1961 with a small experiment run by Herbert Sturz, a young journalist, and funded by Louis Schweitzer, a wealthy New York businessman. Introduced by a mutual friend, the “unlikely pair” shared one important belief: that the criminal justice system was not living up to the promise of the U.S. Constitution. A visit to a Manhattan jail convinced the pair that too many men and women were being locked up before trial, simply because they could not afford bail. Pondering our system that claims to presume innocence until guilt is proven, they found this unacceptable.
The Ford Foundation provided critical early support of Vera’s work. Its $115,000 grant was the first major outside support Vera received, and it gave the nascent organization legitimacy in seeking to persuade government agencies of the need for change. In 1966, McGeorge Bundy, the new president of the Ford Foundation, approved a five-year, $1.1 million grant to turn the Vera Foundation into the Vera Institute of Justice. Mr. Sturz served as Founding Director of The Vera Institute of Justice whose first program was the Manhattan Bail Project.
Herbert Sturz also served as Senior Adviser of the Open Society Foundations and was Founding Chairman of The After-School Corporation. After leaving Vera, he served as New York City Deputy Mayor for Criminal Justice, as Chairman of the New York City Planning Commission, and as a member of the editorial board of The New York Times. He received the Rockefeller Public Service Award among many other honors.
A biography of Herb Sturz entitled A KIND OF GENIUS: Herb Sturz and Society’s Toughest Problems, by veteran NY Times reporter Sam Roberts, emphasizes that Herb’s most impressive achievements are found in the individual stories of prisoners, prostitutes, addicts, alcoholics, abused women, ex-convicts — the unemployed, poor, young and elderly people who were always his real constituency. And remain so to this day.
Herb’s “genius” was in directing public resources their way and inventing new institutions to address their problems. He relied as much on personal virtue as on penetrating intellect.
To the end, he remained determined and confident, yet self-effacing and ever ready to relinquish control of his initiatives. He was zealous and visionary yet highly practical, and immune to the usual temptations of empire building. He was unusually capable of seeing situations and problems from the perspectives of others, even those who may have opposed his efforts. His progressive instincts never blinded him to the more conservative outlook of police officers, city officials and politicians.
Few people possess such inner qualities, and Herb himself, unlike his programs and projects, is not replicable. Yet the most important point of his life is that lasting social change can be achieved by demonstrating how everyone benefits when we improve the lives of those at the bottom. Radical rhetoric and the pressure of protest can push the world forward, but so do nudging, persuading and, yes, manipulating the establishment into accepting reforms that are efficient and humane.
In 2012 at 78, he received the John C. Hendricks Pioneer Award from the National Association of Pretrial Services for his lifetime of service. Herb wrote the following message of thanks extolling the work of those in pretrial for the award:
“You are a wonderful organization working from the ground up to help grow the largely neglected front end of justice – pretrial services – into a vibrant, effective arm of the court, a fine example of a public-private partnership that enhances this nation’s sense of justice.”
NAPSA expands the promise of the Eighth Amendment of the Bill of Rights to the indigent accused, while giving real meaning to “equal justice under the law.”
I am deeply honored to receive, and will cherish, your Pioneer Award.”
It is we who need to cherish Herb Sturz.