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Brooklyn D.A. Joe Hynes
by Joan Baum, Ph.D.

Is it possible that one of the best known district attorneys in the country—Charles “Joe” Hynes, from Brooklyn, was once so indifferent to school, let alone law school, that he let grades go, drifted through classes, and finally, after graduation, took the only job he could get—claims adjuster for Allstate? Yes, but. . . . The “but,” the soft-spoken but passionate 67-year old prosecutor says, had mainly to do with his mother, his ultimate mentor, a courageous woman who got up at 5:00am to go to a job in a real estate office in Brooklyn when working women were hardly appreciated. Because of her faith and determination, the aimless graduate from St. John’s Law School was wise enough one day in 1963 to take advantage of a chance meeting with a law school alum who happened to know of an opening for an associate attorney at the Legal Aid Society—“anything was better than claims . . . so boring.” And thus Joe Hynes found himself with The Job That Would Change His Life Forever.

He loved Legal Aid because it gave him a sense of the law as mission, a dedication he took with him when he moved to the Kings County District Attorney’s Office and when he was appointed Special State Prosecutor under Governor Hugh Carey, who asked him to investigate nursing home fraud. That sense also went with him when he became Fire Commissioner in the Koch administration, and it was reinvested, once again, when he was appointed a Special State Prosecutor under Governor Mario Cuomo for the New York City Criminal Justice System. The irony of his present position does not escape the feisty, crusading prosecutor. As D.A., Joe Hynes is committed to putting criminals behind bars, but his heart is in programs to prevent young people from becoming criminals in the first place.

Shortly after serving as Special Prosecutor and Chief Trial Attorney in the racially charged Howard Beach case in 1987 (and winning three homicide convictions against the murderers of Michael Griffith), Joe Hynes founded Legal Lives, a crime-prevention and consciousness-raising program for youngsters ages 10-14, with major attention on the 5th grade. Joe Fernandez was Chancellor at the time and Mary Hughes, Hynes’s Deputy D.A. and Chief of his Crime Prevention Division, along with a Brooklyn neighbor and friend, Charles Posner, an Orthodox Jew, got together to start Legal Lives. The D.A. has the goal of the program memorized: “Fostering good citizenship in students by helping them to make choices that require courage, tolerance and decency.” He wants to break the pattern of self-abuse and hatred that drive young people to drugs, crime, and violence. “It’s the easiest thing to put people in jail.” He’ll do it, but he would prefer not to.

Unless we invest heavily in the social education of our youngsters, he has said on numerous occasions, “you could build a zillion prison cells and you’ll never make the country safe.” There are all those latch-key kids out there wandering around from 3:30-6:30 in the afternoon, it’s “a formula for disaster.” So, what about all those after-school programs, asks Sam Koplewicz from the Dalton School, who wants to be a lawyer. The D.A. turns a sympathetic eye on his young questioner and nods in agreement about their importance. He mentions the political opposition in Washington some years ago and the cuts that were made. “We must show kids alternatives,” he reiterates. He cares so deeply about the issue, he notes, that he himself goes into churches, synagogues, schools, and senior centers to talk about choices kids can make. He also started a truancy program that he’s proud of. Three years ago, thousands of kids a day were not going to school in his borough. He set up five truancy centers led by a social worker. When the police find a truant, the social worker gets in touch with a parent and conversation is begun. Today, he points out, more than 60 percent of these parents and children come to the center. Former Mayor Giulliani so admired the program that he put it in all five boroughs.

Though Legal Lives is now in its 11th year, in hundreds of classrooms and hundreds of public and private schools in the City, and is now replicated in seven states, it still has Joe Hynes’s full heart and head. As if for the first time, though it must be for the thousandth, he glowingly mentions the Legal Lives radio show on WNYE 91.5 FM, which runs through June 11, 2003 and the curriculum booklet of trial materials, Choices, with its interactive lessons on the law that are designed to develop critical and analytical cognitive skills. Then there are the Legal Lives spin-off activities, such as court visits and mock trial competitions, which permit students to compete while taking on various roles as judge, attorneys, witnesses and jury. Does the program work? Given anecdotal evidence, yes, but the D.A. acknowledges the lack of hard data because of confidentiality requirements. He is delighted with the program, however, and not just because of the kids who benefit. He is particularly pleased with, and proud of the effects that Legal Lives has had on his own diversified staff in Brooklyn. About 540 Assistant D.A.s are now involved, adopting schools, mentoring youngsters twice a month, pro bono, leading discussions on actual cases. “The kids love it . . .and learn.”

Of course, the indefatigable D.A. has hardly abandoned those whose education extends beyond the fifth-grade. He continues to serve as adjunct professor at three law schools—Fordham, St. John’s and Brooklyn—and to accept numerous speaking engagements. Not to mention the work of his office, trying over 100,000 cases a year. He must be doing something right in pursuing his mission: Four of his five children have become lawyers. As for that fifth, she’s a social worker, but in Joe Hynes’s world, Justice commands both.#.



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