Truth, Justice and the Reno Way

Clinton's popular, straight-talking Attorney General wants to revolutionize law enforcement, but will the White House let her?

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Reno has no children and has never married. And yet her life is full of them; she is everyone's favorite honorary aunt. Over the years, she has been named in the wills of many friends as legal guardian for their children. That is how she ended up as guardian for the children of Al and Fran Webb, longtime friends who both died of cirrhosis of the liver less than a decade ago, leaving their 15-year-old twins in Reno's care. "Janet would have loved to have a relationship with a man and have children," says her friend Sara Smith. "But she's a very smart woman, and it was difficult to find a man who had both a sophisticated city mind and was an outdoor person -- and was not threatened by a successful woman."

Children seem to sense a powerful friend in Reno. This spring, when the Washington neighborhood of Mount Pleasant was being terrorized by a drive-by killer, she went to visit the local school. Standing before a roomful of children, she told them a story. "Less than a year ago," she began, "a great hurricane hit Miami, hit the area where I lived. And for three hours one morning, the winds blew very, very strong; roofs flew off, children hid under mattresses, they hid in the bathrooms. But the children were so brave and so wonderful."

Her story, aimed to inspire courage in the midst of fear, was well received. But then a little girl asked the question that Reno will never forget. "We want to go outside without no shooting, no killing," the little girl said. "We just want to go around having fun." Since the shooting, she explained, they had to travel in groups and stay inside. "When am I going to be able to go out and play?"

Reno still talks about that girl. "That child, and each of us, expects us to find the answer," she says, "and we can find the answer if we again approach the problem of crime, not with shrill political rhetoric, not of Republicans vs. Democrats, but of all Americans fed up with violence and willing to sit down and say, Let's approach it in the most commonsense, hardheaded way we can, and come up with answers that make punishment mean what it says."


It is on this subject that Reno seems willing to take the greatest risks. She has vowed to develop a crime policy that goes beyond what she skewers as the "demagogic promises to build more jails and put all the criminals away." For the past decade, she watched the prison population keep rising, right along with the crime rate, to the point that America passed South Africa as having the highest number of people in jail per capita. Reno shows remarkable interest in preventing crime rather than just punishing it, a shift in priority that, if she succeeds, could leave a lasting mark on law enforcement.

She argues that the worst, most violent criminals need to be locked up, permanently. But she knows that the states cannot build jails fast enough, particularly since the passage of mandatory sentencing laws requiring real jail time even for nonviolent drug offenders. By 1990, American jails were at 122% of capacity; nearly one-quarter of them were under court order or a judicial consent decree for overcrowding. That forced open the doors, as violent criminals won early release to make room for the flood of drug offenders.

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