After 15 years as chief prosecutor in charge of juvenile delinquency cases in the city Law Department’s Family Court division, Peter Reinharz has said he will step down on February 22.
Known for his clean-up-the-streets, pro-imprisonment approach to juvenile justice, Reinharz told City Limits last week he has accepted a post in Nassau County’s legal department. Noting the huge budget deficits there, he said he looks forward to the “significant challenges out there.”
At press time, the city’s corporation counsel, Michael Cardozo, had yet to name a successor. His office did not return phone calls seeking comment.
With the city’s law department since 1980, Reinharz has gained renown for his tireless crusade for safer streets. His tactic: putting young offenders, violent or not, behind bars. “Legislators, advocates, chief executives, and members of the bar often fail to recognize that the best interests of the child and the need for community safety are frequently mutually exclusive,” he wrote in his 1996 book, Killer Kids, Bad Law: Tales of the Juvenile Court System. “Assuring community safety while searching for the best interests of the youth may require one simple approach: long periods of incarceration.”
The results: During his time as chief Family Court prosecutor, the number of kids under 16 in city detention centers jumped despite a drop in violent crime among juveniles.
Reinharz tended to oppose alternatives to incarceration. Thanks in part to that position, the Annie E. Casey Foundation dropped New York City from its Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative program in the mid-1990s. The program was designed to reduce the number of teens in detention, while also reducing recidivism.
Reinharz’s approach drew the wrath of many defense attorneys. His office “has a history in family court on focusing on the punitive piece, as opposed to trying to help the youngster and her family get on track,” said Ron Richter of the Legal Aid Society’s Juvenile Rights Division.
In 1998, Reinharz made headlines for allowing a research center in search of drug test subjects to access the city’s family court records. The researchers recruited the younger brothers of the delinquents to take fenfluramine, half of the diet combo fen-phen–which was banned in 1997–for a study on aggression. Charging that the young offenders’ privacy had been violated, Jane Spinak, then head of the Juvenile Rights Division, called for an investigation. But the city stood by Reinharz.
While they do not know who will replace Reinharz, his former adversaries hope a change at the top could open doors to less punitive approaches to juvenile delinquency. Said Spinak, “For the first time in forever we can have serious conversations about … how to balance the rights and needs of young people with the need for community safety.”