Fritz Reese

The county’s outgoing director of Juvenile Justice Services on post-retirement plans, his biggest accomplishment and his interesting side ‘job’

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Fritz Reese’s office looks out on a dark and dusty atrium that’s home to a single tree and a brown garden of sprouting quarter-inch dripper tubes. “Yeah, they took the grass out a long time ago to save money and water, and they were supposed to put in rocks. But hey, dirt’s even cheaper.”

Stretching a budget has been part of Reese’s everyday job for quite some time. Clark County’s director of Juvenile Justice Services scrambles to oversee everything from work permits to probation to detention of kids between the ages of 8 and 17, as well as a 100-bed county camp for boys on Mount Charleston. Reese, who moved to Las Vegas in 1966 from Santa Rosa, Calif., and joined the county eight years later, became director of Juvenile Justice Services in 2009, but prior to that he was assistant director and then acting director, among several other county jobs.

Reese, 62, is trim, energetic and engaging, and betrays no signs of being ready to quit, even though that’s what he’s planning to do Oct. 5, when the certified sommelier puts juvenile crime on the back burner and turns his focus to his other passion: wine.

We understand that one of your first post-retirement assignments is writing a book. What will it be about?

I am in the process. My wife works for the Department of Family Services, and she’s also retiring on Oct. 5. She’s a terrific writer and avid reader, so we’ve had a number of discussions. … Part of it’s going to be about, yeah, I’ve been a juvenile-justice guy my entire life, but I’ve been involved with wine ever since I was in college. Nothing very sophisticated [at the time]; probably I was drinking Paul Masson French Colombard while my friends were drinking Hamm’s or Budweiser. My wine interest continued on, and I went to San Francisco and sat for the certification for sommeliers. Then I went to the advanced school of wine [in Napa Valley, Calif.] in ’95, and then in the latter part of ’95 I began teaching wine classes at the community college up until just a few months ago. So I have been leading these interesting two lives. When I tell people what my day job is and that I am involved in instruction of wine and also being involved in special events—I got hooked up with a special-events company in Beverly Hills [Calif.] and did some big-time, $1,800-a-plate type stuff—all of this has a very interesting story appeal.

You actually taught wine classes?

I hold a record. I’ve sold out every one of my classes over the past 14½ years and always had a long waiting list; they would say sometimes my classes would sell out in two hours. My class was more of a tasting class, so it provided the geography and the history. I wove it around wanting to improve people’s tasting ability. The classes were only five weeks—two hours on a Thursday night. I called it the “Thursday night wine happy hour—and you might learn something at the same time.”

What are you most proud of in your tenure as director of Juvenile Justice Services?

Getting the recognition that mental health for youth comes into play with delinquency and the juvenile-justice system. Fifteen to 20 years ago, we just thought, well, it’s kids being kids, and sometimes they’re involved in serious crimes. Here’s a stat: 68 percent of all the youth who come in contact with the juvenile-justice system have some type of recognizable mental-health issue. Of kids who are in our detention centers, it’s about 78 percent. … And it’s much higher for those who are deeper into the system.

What do these kids’ families look like?

One thing we have found is more than 70 percent of kids who come to us have a single head of household, and that may not be a mom. That could be a grandma or an aunt.

I’m a recently retired high school teacher, and I would get students who were already developing a sort of tribal or family identity with the juvenile-justice system. Is this something you’re addressing?

You identified the very thing that we are now starting to get. Detention centers were never supposed to be used for punishment, but they were. The mentality was, “Well, we’ll lock them up for a few days, maybe a week or two, and that will teach them a lesson.” What we have found is that detention does more harm to a kid than good. You don’t teach a kid a lesson. Instead, they begin to identify with a separate culture that supports the disconnection with society.

Have you seen a consistent reduction in juvenile arrests and detention?

Absolutely. In 2007, we received 26,700 referrals; in 2011 we received 21,000. And that’s referrals from any law enforcement. Most people think crime is up. When I speak to groups, I say, “How many of you think that crime is down?” Nobody raises a hand. “If I told you juvenile crime is really down, how many of you feel safer?” Nobody raises a hand. But it is, and it goes down about 5 to 6 percent every year. And people probably think burglary or robbery are our two highest referral charges. But no, it’s truancy and curfew violations. Are those even appropriate things to be in the juvenile-justice system?

Are there any success stories?

There are a lot of them. There are kids who have come out of our youth camp [on Mount Charleston] and finished high school maybe because they played football on our eight-man team up there, and that was the first time they had ever been involved in organized sports. Then they went on to play college sports. But if you talk to anybody in our system, [the success stories are] when a kid walks up to you in a grocery store or a mall and says, “Hey, you’re Mr. Reese, I remember you! I thought you were pretty cool, and you helped me.”

Kids have the greatest success if they have a meaningful adult in their life, whoever that is. If you can play that role for a kid, and you see him later and he is a meaningful contributor to the community, and he says, “Here’s my wife, here’s my kids”—that’s probably the biggest sense of success.

You were supposed to retire earlier this year. What happened?

I was scheduled to retire Feb. 17; I announced that after the Legislature was over. After the legislative session and the work that was required around that, I said, “Well, I’ll give the county time to recruit and bring someone in.” [J. Russell Jennings] started Jan. 3 and was here for 2½ weeks and decided this wasn’t something he wanted to do. He had retired from the state of Kansas in juvenile justice and didn’t feel this was something he wanted to take on. The county was unsure of which direction to take, so I agreed to stay on longer. But my intention is to retire Oct. 5.

Are there any unique juvenile problems we face here in Southern Nevada?

On one hand it’s the same as anywhere, but on the other hand we have a significant transient population. Not quite as transient as we had in the heyday when we had a significant number of construction workers; when the construction left, so did those workers and their families.

We still continue to have this parade of people coming through Southern Nevada looking for work, and that’s a challenge, because it is difficult to provide services in those situations where people move all the time.

Do we have unique challenges? Yes we do, because of our 24-hour nature. But I don’t see it as significant. We are part of what they call “The Circuit” of teen prostitution, because of the nature of our town, but they have the same issues in L.A., Seattle, Phoenix. Even Portland is involved in that. So it’s an issue for large cities in the West.

So how do you deal with teen prostitution?

There’s really been a mind-set change. We are treating them more like they’re the victims as opposed to a perpetrator and providing treatment for that need. Part of that involves Metro, [which] has to get them to testify against their pimps in court.

That’s a frightening thing for them.

It is. And also most of those girls have some kind of mental-health issue, so that brings mental health back into the picture. So we get them help as opposed to letting them go, saying, “Don’t do that again,” and then they run away, and they’re back out there on the street.

So you see your role as: The bulk of juvenile delinquents have mental-health issues, and those issues should be addressed within the system so they don’t become permanent residents, while juveniles who are truly dangerous to society need to be kept away from society?

That’s it, absolutely. There was an excellent paper done maybe eight to 10 years ago that introduced the 8 percent solution. Because we have found that 8 percent or so of the [juvenile-justice] population do serious crimes. The rest are all floating around being involved or becoming involved. Maybe the 8 percent will go on to the adult system, but how do we deal with the other 92 percent, and how do we become more effective with the resources we have available? It used to be that if you got referred for alcohol, well, nothing would ever happen. Now if you get referred for first-time drugs or alcohol—like a very minor possession of marijuana or even beer—we do an assessment. So we start out identifying those things at the front end and work with the families and say “Hey, you’ve got some identifiable needs here, and here’s your road map to get some help; here’s your road map out of here.”

Because a lot of times parents are lost, and it’s harder to get out the deeper you get into the system. And for the most part, we meet parents who want the best things for their kids. Some just have more skills than others. So what we try to do then is coach them up. Instead of saying “Well, you have all these bad things going for you,” we say, “Well you do have a few good things going for you, and here’s what we can connect you with in the community, because we don’t have the internal resources to provide you with that.”

Back to your other passion: Why aren’t you teaching wine classes anymore?

Deluca [Liquor and Wine], who were bought up by the Wirtz family from Chicago, had been my sponsor for the entire 14½ years that I taught classes, and recently [Wirtz] decided to underwrite a sommelier program for the community college, which would be a two-year program, so their resources as far as community education started going toward that.

Would you be interested in teaching again?

Sure, but it would probably need to be a distributor. The wines Wirtz and DeLuca provided me were very generous. To do even just a “Wines of the World” class, I’d probably serve maybe 53 different wines, all of good quality.