Study finds racial disparities in Manhattan DA's office

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A study of the inner workings of the office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance and his caseload found some evidence of racial and ethnic disparities in how cases were handled, particularly in plea bargaining and sentencing, officials said Tuesday.

But the report, which capped a two-year study of Vance's office, also found no "significant difference" based on race or ethnicity in the way his staff decided to begin prosecutions on cases brought by the NYPD.

The study -- funded by the federal National Institute of Justice and done with the collaboration of Vance and the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice -- reviewed more than 220,000 cases, including noncriminal violations, misdemeanors and certain drug, weapons and theft felonies that occurred from 2010 to 2011. Homicide and assaults were excluded.

According to a summary of the report released Tuesday, the study noted a number of racial disparities in case outcomes involving mainly black and Latino defendants but also outcomes that impacted whites and Asians. Among the most notable was that black and Latino defendants were more likely to be detained after arraignment without bail and were more likely than whites or Asians to receive a jail or prison sentence.

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Whites were also less likely than "similarly situated" black, Latino and Asian defendants to have their cases dismissed, the research found.

"The most important job of a District Attorney is to enhance public safety while ensuring fairness for all who come before the court," Vance said in a statement. "That is why it is critically important for us to understand where and why disparities occur in the criminal justice system."

The report didn't say the disparities were caused by any bias on the part of prosecutors. Vera president Nick Turner said in a statement the research could lead to corrective steps to deal with fairness.

"I think it is really a principled and courageous decision Cy Vance has taken on, this . . . opening up your office to independent review comes with significant political risk," said Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm, whose office had a similar study done several years ago. "You are saying we recognize our [justice] system is not perfect and we would benefit from outside review."

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