Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. ’77 talked leadership, law and public service to an audience ranging from pre-frosh to Yale College Dean Mary Miller Wednesday at Linsly-Chittenden Hall.

Only the fifth person to serve as Manhattan’s district attorney since 1938 when he was elected two years ago, Vance emphasized the importance of fairness in the criminal justice system and the need to enhance public safety.

“The idea is focusing our idea of success in our work not just by the number of convictions or the number of people jailed, but in implementing policy that results in a long term reduction in crime,” Vance said.

Manhattan’s first Mental Health Court, which opened two weeks ago, is an example of such an intervention, Vance said, and is intended to reduce the high percentage of people who are in prison as a result of mental illnesses.

Vance spoke at length on the idea of fairness, referring to two cases that particularly altered his perspective on justice. One of the first cases Vance was assigned after assuming the district attorney post was that of a young Chinese national convicted for a series of robberies. The man reformed his life, Vance said, but was later arrested for attempting to illictly procure United States citizenship. Despite the man’s crime, Vance said he wrote a letter to the governor of New York asking for an individual pardon for him — an almost unprecedented act, he said.

Vance talked about the immense power wielded by young attorneys and the far-reaching, often unforeseen, implications of their decisions. He recounted the case of Pam, a crack addict he originally intended to sentence to jail, but eventually decided to place in rehabilitation. Pam went on to become a highly successful real estate agent and requested Vance to support her case in the consideration of the civil rights of persons addicted to substance abuse.

“You never know the impact of your decision as a process on the life of the person before you,” Vance said.

The talk ended with a lively question and answer session in which members of the audience solicited advice for embarking on a career in law and cross-examined Vance on his ideas on cyber crime.

Seven audience members interviewed praised Vance’s eloquence and ideals. Others praised his practicality and his aversion to sugar-coating the truth.

“He came out with no fluff and gave direct examples, balancing ideals with practicality very well,” said Meng Jia Yang ’12. “I really liked how he laid out his goals but was honest about the different problems he faced.”

“It’s rare to get this opportunity to listen to someone practicing prosecution at such a high level. I especially enjoyed his response to fairness and the safety of the people,” William Robles ’11 said.

The talk was organized by the Yale College Democrats and the Yale Undergraduate Law Review and is the second of a series of talks being conducted by the Review this year.

“He is very experienced in law and public service and we felt this was something we wanted the campus to hear ” said David Chan ’12, editor in chief of the Yale Undergraduate Law Review.

Vance’s father, Cyrus Roberts Vance, served as US Secretary of State for President Jimmy Carter.