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's alternative is a carrot and a stick: offer nonviolent addicts treatment and rehabilitation, and save the jails for the most unsalvageable thugs. The laboratory for her experiments in crime and punishment was Miami's long, hot "crack summer" in 1986, when police were bringing in hundreds of pushers and addicts a night. She later fought to get the local judges, police and public defenders to agree to special drug courts that would "sentence" nonviolent offenders to a yearlong drug-rehab and -education program. After the first year, 9 out of 10 graduates were still clean, and cities around the country began copying the idea.

"The idea of treating drug addicts in hopes they wouldn't come back to court was pretty radical -- especially for a prosecutor," notes John Goldkamp, a Temple University criminal-justice professor who has been studying the drug court. "She has launched a mini-movement in the courts across the United States." But Reno is no dewy-eyed optimist about such tactics. Goldkamp recalls an early meeting: "Reno said she was skeptical of fairy tales about the miraculous efficacy of the program on public safety, but she said if it delayed seeing drug addicts again in court, that was a real contribution."

None of this makes her sound much like a bleeding heart, but it was enough to raise alarms at the White House, which plans to ask Congress for 100,000 new cops. Reno's priorities, they complain, are too liberal and social-service oriented -- particularly at a time when the President is trying to restore his centrist reputation. Her assault on mandatory-sentencing laws horrified White House aides, who may agree that the laws don't work very well but are more concerned about what message they send. "There is some question about how ideologically in synch she is with the Clinton Administration," says one % official, though others privately note that staying in synch with so elastic a President means not believing in much.

And Reno, say those who know her best, believes in plenty. "Southern liberals are that way because they believe," says her sister. "You weren't a liberal because it was a fad or because you were supposed to. You weren't supposed to. So you did it from profound conviction." The real irony here is that Reno may be the New Democrat that Clinton both avoids and aspires to be. Her heart is big but her solutions are sound; she cares more for results than for labels, for ideas over ideology. If the White House is worried about taking the country in a new direction, perhaps it should send Reno on ahead as a scout. If she fails, she'll say so. And if she continues to get it right, she may be the one to lead the revolution.

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