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Manhattan House of Detention for Men
Prisoners in the Manhattan House of Detention for Men, also known as “the Tombs,” hang a sign from the window that reads “Justice Now,” after smashing out the blocks of bullet-proof glass Aug. 11, 1970. (The Associated Press)
First Person

Looking Back and Thinking Ahead on Pretrial Justice

Arnold Ventures’ Jeremy Travis came of age in the pretrial justice world. Now, 40 years later, he considers how little — and how much — has changed.

The invitation to speak at this year’s Pretrial Innovators Convention (PI-Con) in Denver sparked a trip down memory lane. I came of age in the pretrial justice world. In 1973, a short three years after graduating from college, I joined the Vera Institute of Justice to take a low-level position in the new federally-funded Pretrial Services Agency in Brooklyn.

The agency was created in response to a real crisis. In 1970, riots broke out in the Manhattan House of Detention for Men, better known as the Tombs, as well as jails in Queens and Brooklyn. After negotiations failed, heavily armed officers stormed these jails to regain control. With an urgency fueled by the Attica uprising later that year, the city invited Vera to return to its landmark work on bail reform and build a new agency dedicated to reducing pretrial detention.

The Pretrial Services Agency used tools created by Vera in the early 60s: a point system validated by research to assess the strength of a defendant’s community ties, in-person interviews with detained defendants, and follow-up letters and phone calls to increase returns to court. Some of our tools were novel — a sophisticated computerized notification system, a network of community outreach workers, and a highly effective supervised release program. Our mandate was clear: reduce the city’s jail population.

Flash forward four years. The federal funding had run its course. The city decided to expand the Pretrial Services Agency from Brooklyn to all five counties. A new nonprofit was created called the New York City Criminal Justice Agency (CJA), and through a stroke of good fortune, I was named its Executive Director.

Despite CJA’s work, the jail population skyrocketed, reaching nearly 22,000 at its peak in 1995. Yet CJA remained resilient — a tribute to the vision of its founders and staff — and now, thanks to additional great efforts by city officials, advocacy groups, and nonprofit organizations, the jail population has fallen to fewer than 8,000. Even better: There is a commitment to close Rikers, the notorious jail complex, and bring the population under 5,000. To meet this goal, the city is using every tool in the tool box, including supervised release, a revised risk assessment model, and administrative reforms. CJA will be a major player in this next chapter of pretrial reform in New York City.

I am hopeful we can perform a lasting service to our country by significantly reducing unnecessary and unjust pretrial detention.

I left CJA in 1979. Now, 40 years later, I return to the world of pretrial justice. One reason I was so excited to join Arnold Ventures is its role in advancing pretrial reform across the country. At first blush, surprisingly little has changed in the past four decades. We are still debating familiar questions: Should money bail be abolished? Should the risk of pretrial crime be considered in making release decisions? Should we even impose conditions on pretrial release? 

Yet much has changed. The most exciting difference is the energy. Today’s reform movement is electric. We now have states like New Jersey, Kentucky, and California that have embraced systematic bail reform legislation. We have a dozen major national foundations supporting pretrial reform efforts. And the larger criminal justice reform movement — the campaign to end mass incarceration, the emergence of new reform-minded prosecutors, the street-level organizing proclaiming Black Lives Matter, the campaigns to restore voting rights in Florida, the bipartisan support for the First Step Act — has given the bail reform agenda an unprecedented infusion of power and legitimacy. Even in the late 1960s, when Attorney General Kennedy led a national bail reform movement and Congress passed the Bail Reform Act of 1966, the movement was very much top down. Now it’s a grassroots movement and part of a larger justice reform era. 

I am excited about the potential for deep pretrial reform in our time. I am eager to learn from colleagues in Denver. PI-Con promises to tap into the pent-up demand for change, by providing space for thoughtful engagement, leading-edge discussions and creative problem-solving for people who care deeply about pretrial justice. And I am deeply impressed by the leadership of the Pretrial Justice Institute and my good friend Cherise Fanno Burdeen. Most fundamentally, I am hopeful we can perform a lasting service to our country by significantly reducing unnecessary and unjust pretrial detention. I look forward to this next chapter and do so mindful of my indebtedness to all those who helped shape this work — and my career — back in those exciting days in Brooklyn.