Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, said in an interview that he has overseen a 60 percent reduction in the number of cases pursued by his staff from 2009 to 2019 while focusing on alternatives to incarceration for relatively minor crimes.
His critics have accused the office of administering justice unfairly — giving passes to the wealthy and influential, while coming down hard on defendants of color from the city’s troubled communities. Vance (D), who has said he will not seek reelection this year after three terms in office, has gained national prominence for having pursued an ongoing criminal investigation of former president Donald Trump and his business activities.
He said his decision to disclose the prosecution data is meant to help the public “better understand what is going on, and what has gone on, in terms of the operations of the office.” He added, “I think it is our job to make the numbers available, and people will make of it what they will.”
The data will illuminate differences “between races,” Vance said, and that the point of collecting these figures “is always to try to understand why are there those differences and how those differences compare over time . . . to see if there are decision-making points in our work that need to be better understood.”
Melba Pearson, now with the Prosecutorial Performance Indicators Project at Florida International University and Loyola University Chicago, said the public has come to expect data from prosecutors the way juries, taking cues from TV shows like “Law and Order,” expect genetic evidence to wipe away their doubts at trial.
Data is “kind of like the new DNA,” Pearson said. “People are like, ‘Okay, show me the numbers for how this works.’ ”
Pearson’s project has launched databases in Jacksonville, Milwaukee, Chicago and Tampa. Participants agree to a two-year audit and to making public any racial disparities that come to light.
Improving prosecutors’ record-keeping is key to justice reform because “you can’t change what you don't measure,” Pearson said. “The reality is too many times prosecutors view success and view how well they’re doing their job by the number of convictions they get, and one thing has nothing to do with the other.”
Preeti Chauhan, who heads the Data Collaborative for Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, previewed the Vance’s data dashboard and described it as a “rich resource.”
“They have really provided insights into case processing at really critical declination points,” Chauhan said. “They’ve done this over time, which allows for an evaluation of how certain policies may impact outcome.”
Early in Vance’s tenure, the Vera Institute for Justice found the “vast majority” of cases police officers brought to his office were prosecuted — now, many more are declined — and that Black and Latino defendants were more likely to be detained at arraignment and receive a jail or prison sentence instead of a noncustodial punishment. The study also found that minority defendants were more likely than White defendants to have their cases dismissed, indicating such cases may have been problematic or too weak to pursue in the first place.