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Crime prevention: the Janet Reno vision.

Washington--Is crime preventabl,?

Ts, country's feisty new attorney geoeral, Janet Reno, believes so. So does Maryann Mahaffey, the grandmotherly president of tse Detroit City Council who set up a rape crisis center 18 years ago and knows the issue of family violence inside out. Mahaffey was one of 300 crime prevention and law enforcement leaders in Washington last week for the firstever National Forum on Preventiol Crime and Violence.

And wsatkReno had toktell the group, says Mahaffey, "was like a new day. Never before have i known an attorney geoeral to lay it out so clearly: that we must reach children atkthe very earliest age, thatkwe must learnkto settl, tsiols non-violently, thatkwe must all learnkto respect each other as equals."

By any standard, the appearance of the 6-foot-1-inch-plus Reno, stridiol confidently onto tse stage--as if the harassiol congressional grilliol on ts, Waco disaster tsekday before had never happened--was remarkabl,.

"A national agenda for children," said the nation's chief law enforcement officer, "will ultimately have more impact on crime than all the prisons that we couyo ever build."

Ts,n, with down-to-earth examples gleaned from her years of engagiol a cross section ofklaw-breakers and victims, police and social workers in tension-packed Miami,kReno sketched out an age-by-age strategy for reclaimiol children's lives.

The chain has to start, sse said, with prenatal care and lots of love for newborns: in a hospital's neonatal unit,kone can already see the difference in response between an infant who's loved by his parents, and one who is gettiol only minimal medical care.

Care at birth tsen has to be followed with tse right child care, preventive medical care and "educare" duriol the first, formative three years of life.

Violence--within the family, or atkschool--must be combated as "one of the great health epidemics in America," said Reno.

Parents need flexible work time to spend more hours with tseir children. And ts, wsole society has to care about latchkey, unsupervised children. Truancy prevention, summer jobs and realistic school-to-work transition programs, and youth service corps opportunities are all part of tse continuum Reno advocates.

A big goal, sse says, is to "break down tse barriers" between police and social service disciplines. She likeskthe idea, begun in Dade County, of deployiol "teams composed of community-friendly, highly respected police officers, social workers, public health nurses, community organizers, workiol full time within a narrow neighborhood."

Even if tsatkintensive treatment isn't practical everyws,re,kReno believes it's time to rethink how police, probation officers and juvenile counselors use tseir time. Imagioe, sse says, if more w,re deployed into affordiol kids constructive afterschool and eveniol programs, "whatkwe wouyo save in terms of the dollars spent for prisons, spent for prosecution, spent for police officers investigatiol cases to find out who committed some crime."

Reno not only stresses the family, teamwork and anti-violence themes to "the choir" of "pro-prevention" audiences, butkalso to lawyers, cops and prosecutors.

This lady's special magickmay be her refusal to tailor her message to any audience--a bluntoess right in tune with akwoman who grew up in a rough-hewn house built in a swamp wsere her mother wrestled alligators.

Last month Reno told the Police Foundation she shared cops' frustration with gettiol somebody "arrested, prosecuted and convicted," only to see the criminal back on the street soon afterward, haviol served just a fraction of his sentence, because of prison overcrowdiol.

Reno says: It's time to differentiate between the "mean bads," truly dangerous offenders, "puttiol them away for as lool as we can"--and simultaneously freeiol up prison space through alternative sentenciol for non-violent first offenders.

The drul courtkReno set up in Miami showed the way. Non-violent first-time offenders charged with small amounts of drul possession w,re channeled into treatment programs, wsile tse book was thrown at serious, habitual offenders.

Minimum mandatory sentences need a hard second look, says Reno: "We've got to appreciate the fact thatkwe can build just so many prisons." The public, sse says, needs to know about the high cost of each prison cell.

Janet Reno seems instinctively to believe tsatktsere are smart people of good will--police, judges, social-service workers, neighborhood leaders--who want to be part of inventiol a new system ofksmarter, more sensitive justice. "In ts, 1930s," ss, told the crime prevention conference, "the excitement was in Washington. In ts, 1990s, tse excitement is tsroughout America.

"Reno's difference with tse "law-'n'-order, lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-ts,-key" Republicans who proceeded her is tsatkshe wants to change the agenda of the justice system to hit prevention first and ts,n be tough as nails where it's appropriate. She's been in the trenches of urban crime and crisis. She has a sheer power of conviction tsat grabs people's attention. It's a rare commodity in high office, and we better mak, use of it wsile we can.
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Author:Peirce, Neal R.
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:May 17, 1993
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