Fritz Reese has been trying to make a difference in kids’ lives since he got a job as a teenager at the Boys & Girls Club of Las Vegas.
“I’ve been in the kid business a long time,” said Reese, who first became a Clark County employee in 1974.
“There’s a great deal of pride that comes with helping kids that may have slipped off the track a bit, and then put them back on.”
After 35 years, Reese is still in the “kid business,” but his position is significantly more prestigious.
In August, the Clark County Commission ratified his appointment as director of the Department of Juvenile Justice Services, a position he had held on an interim basis since last September.
The appointment was based on his experience, which included supervising every function of the department.
“People joke that I’ve done everything and swept the floors,” he said with a laugh. “And it’s true.”
Reese said juvenile justice in Las Vegas has changed significantly in the last three decades.
The changes have been both for the good, such as increased communication among states to compare rehabilitation methods, and the bad, which includes spikes in gang- and weapons-related violence.
“I wouldn’t want to be a kid trying to navigate the system now,” he said. “If a kid used to be bothered or bullied, maybe he’d go home with a bloody nose and not worry about it.
“Now there’s a retaliation issue with guns. There’s a lot more to worry about.”
One of the approaches to juvenile justice that Reese has championed is focusing on families instead of just individuals. If probation officers and counselors can identify problems within the family structure, something positive could happen for more than one person, he said.
“Let’s say we have ‘John’ and we can help him,” Reese said. “But he has younger brothers and sisters. If we can help the family, we can change the tide of the other siblings in the system.”
Another more controversial strategy has been the department’s focus on reducing juvenile incarceration, he said.
In 2004, Clark County had an average of 261.8 juveniles incarcerated each day. By the end of 2008, that number had been reduced to 174.5, a 33 percent reduction in four years, he said.
Some people have a knee-jerk reaction to immediately use detention as a punishment, but it isn’t always the best option, Reese said.
The only reasons for a youth to be incarcerated are if they’re a danger to the community, if they’ve demonstrated they won’t appear at court or if they’re a danger to themselves, he said.
“Some people say, ‘Jeez, that’s a public risk there,’ ” he said. His own experience and juvenile justice research show “that those kids out of detention will commit less crime later.”
And it’s not as though the kids are getting a free pass, he said. There are programs in place to ensure public safety. GPS monitors, daily home checks and evening reporting centers are all methods used to keep kids in their homes and out of trouble, he said.
Reducing the detention center population also saves money, which is important when you consider the budget woes Clark County is facing, said Family Court Judge William Voy.
He noted that probation officers in Clark County average 75 kids per officer, which is much higher than the ideal ratio of 35 per officer.
But there’s not a lot of extra funding available to correct the problem, Voy said.
“Everyone (Clark County administrators) is competing for scarce resources.”
Voy said Reese has done an admirable job for Clark County, and suspects he’ll do a fine job of weathering the financial storm as director.
Reese said he doesn’t expect his staff can be successful alone.
Community involvement will be the key to making big steps in Las Vegas, which is still a small town in many ways, he said.
“There’s work to do, but I think we’ll get there,” he said.
Contact reporter Mike Blasky at email@example.com or 702-383-0283.