Addressing racial disparities in criminal prosecutions was the focus of discussion at Harvard Law School on Nov. 20 at an event sponsored by the new Criminal Justice Program of Study, Research and Advocacy at Harvard Law School.

The program, which will officially launch in the fall of 2015, is co-directed by Carol Steiker, the Henry J. Friendly Professor of Law, and Alex Whiting, Professor of Practice. [Read Q&A with Professors Carol Steiker and Alex Whiting].

At the two-panel event, researchers from the Vera Institute of Justice discussed their recently released report on “Race and Prosecution in Manhattan,” and District Attorneys Cyrus Vance Jr. (New York County/Manhattan), and John Chisholm (Milwaukee County, Wisc.) shared the challenges and opportunities faced by their offices.

The first panel—with Jim Parsons, vice president and research director of the Vera Institute of Justice, Whitney Tymas, the former director of prosecution and racial justice program at Vera, and Nitin Savur, deputy chief of the trial division of the New York County District Attorney’s Office—focused on a two-year study, conducted by the Vera Institute, of more than 220,000 cases in New York County to determine whether race played a role in prosecutorial decisions.

The report, “Race and Prosecution in Manhattan, which was released this July, found racial and ethnic disparities in how cases were handled, particularly in plea bargaining and sentencing. Among other things, they found that black and Hispanic defendants are more likely to be held in jail before trial than white and Asian defendants, and black and Hispanic defendants were more likely to be offered plea bargains that included prison sentences.

According to Savur, the D.A.s participated in the study as part of a focus on fairness. “Our goal is to operate a fair criminal court for everyone. It’s difficult to do that unless you know what the problems are.” The Manhattan district attorney’s office is one of the biggest and busiest D.A.’s offices in the country, with more than 500 assistant district attorneys handling roughly 100,000 cases annually. Savur added that the office hoped that by participating in the project, and making the results public, other district attorneys would be encouraged to examine their own practices.

Following the research presentation, Whiting moderated a discussion with Vance and Chisholm to discuss the challenges they face and the approaches they’ve taken to address inequities in their districts.

Both Vance and Chisholm have been involved in a number of criminal justice reform programs. Vance said when he took over as district attorney in Manhattan in 2010, he prioritized public safety and fairness. He has focused on sentencing reform and prosecutorial oversight, and he instituted a conviction integrity program, which reviewed innocence claims in more than 160 cases.

Chisholm, a career prosecutor who was elected Milwaukee D.A. in 2006, has been a leader in justice reform. He has opened his office to outside evaluation and assessment, including working with the Vera Institute of Justice, the National Institute of Corrections, the Center of Court Innovation, the National Institute of Justice and Measures for Justice.

As a result of the Vera study, Vance says he plans to implement “implicit bias” training for his assistants to guard against unconscious prejudices in their decision-making.